India Must Treat the Internet as a Public Utility During COVID 19, and After

The digital divide in India is a long-term problem and will require sustained investment, time and better designed interventions to improve. However, there are steps the state can take immediately.

Stay at home. This has been the most dominant message coming out from the government in relation to the outbreak of COVID-19 in India.

The government has issued a strict 21-day lockdown, instructing people to only move out for the essentials. In some states, like Goa, even that is not allowed and people have been instructed to stay at home. The biggest social influencer in the country, the prime minister, has consistently underscored the importance of staying at home and social distancing in all his public addresses on this issue. So, if the whole country is staying at home, then the importance of internet access, as a public utility in India, is enhanced.

Almost all activities in our everyday lives – work, education, entertainment, socialising, shopping etc – are moving online. The internet has also played a crucial role in broadcasting information and data related to COVID-19. Having internet access acts as an enabler and an incentive for people to stay at home, practice social distancing and try to move forward with our lives.

However, it is important to understand that in India, quality internet access is a privilege and is not available to everyone. As per the latest data shared by TRAI in February 2020, India has around 115 crore wireless subscribers, of which around 66 crore have access to broadband quality internet. Broadband in India is defined as equal to, or above 512 Kbps download speed. So in a country of around 130 crores, around half currently have access to a decent standard of internet.

Amidst all this, we need to factor the extraordinary situation of the government  limiting the quality of internet access for people living in Jammu and Kashmir. In its March 4 order, the home department of the Jammu and Kashmir administration lifted the ban on social media platforms and other websites not whitelisted earlier. However, for mobile devices, access to internet was restricted to 2G speed, and fixed-line internet access was only allowed through Mac-binding, which means that only identified desktops and laptops would have access.

This limited access has been extended by subsequent orders on March 17 and March 26. This is in the midst of a state-wide and nation-wide lockdown where people are dependent on the internet to access information, services, connect with family and friends, socialise and entertain themselves. The latest order, issued on April 3, continues these restrictions, claiming that they have no effect on the ability of people to access information and educational content – and ignoring the lived realities of people actually suffering the consequences of these restrictions. It has been documented that in Kashmir, the internet shutdown had caused strains which go beyond communication and economic activity. Even with this understanding, it is incomprehensible that the government continues to deny the full benefits of internet access to a section citizens.

The digital divide in India has existed for quite some time now and exacerbates existing socio-economic inequalities. People living in rural areas, low-income households and those residing in less developed states also get less reliable internet. If we look at internet access, beyond the issue of infrastructure, we have no reliable data reflecting the rate of digital literacy in India, which can actually tell us about the number of people who are fully capable of using the internet in all aspects of their life. According to a report by the parliamentary standing committee on IT on various digital literacy programmes in India, as of October 2018, these have covered around 1.67% of the population. A reading of the report shows that even within these schemes there are many problems related to implementation and how they have been designed.

One of the ways the state has tried to alleviate both these issues of infrastructure and digital literacy has been through the systems of Common Service Centers. These are physical facilities, run by a Village Level Entrepreneur (VLE). They help citizens in accessing a wide range of government information and services. They are mostly located in areas where internet access is not available widely, or people are unable to use it themselves. They play an important role in helping Digital India programmes take shape and getting citizens used to accessing services online. Similarly, in urban and peri-urban areas, cyber cafes and mobile recharge shops also double up as internet facilitation centres, helping people to transfer money, fill application forms and access government schemes and information. However, in times of social distancing and the importance of people staying at home, these are a complication, not a solution. If you can’t access the internet and if you can’t go to a CSC or a cyber cafe, you are basically cut off.

Internet access allows people access to banking and financial services, telemedicine services, educational resources, real time information on government directives, and for the more privileged amongst us, the ability to order food, groceries and medicines online. We can see that the government realises the importance of internet access, since services related to internet and telecommunication have been deemed as essential, as per the home ministry notification issued on March 24.

A future roadmap

The digital divide in India is a long-term problem and will require sustained investment, time and better designed interventions to improve. However, there are steps the state can take immediately. With private telecom companies having over 89% of the market share in wireless services in India, as of December 2019, they also have a role to play.

The government may consider regulatory and policy changes which would allow internet providers to ramp up capacity by deploying new and even experimental technologies which can help increase access and availability, without going through the regular red tape of licenses and permissions which are ordinarily required.

The Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), generated through the Universal Access Levy charged on revenues of all telecom operators, can be used to incentivise private telecom companies to increase data usage limits and also provide data in underserved areas for free, or at a subsidised cost. They may also be encouraged to use CSR funds for this purpose.

Bharat Net, a project which is progressively providing broadband connectivity to all Gram Panchayats, can be temporarily focused to target rural areas which have been currently left out. In areas where infrastructure cannot immediately be ramped up to provide individual internet connections, public Wi-Fi hotspots can be created, with enough density to avoid congregation at one location. Since COVID-19 has been notified as a disaster, funds from different disaster relief funds can also be mobilised for this.

In India, we have been witnessing a digital divide, both in terms of infrastructure and digital literacy which leaves the most vulnerable sections of our society deprived of the benefits of being online. The current situation reinforces the argument for recognising internet access as an indispensable part of human life, and for this to be guaranteed, promoted and protected by the state.

Sumeysh Srivastava is the programme manager at Nyaaya, an initiative of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy