India's Internet Is Developing Fast, But Has Long Way To Go

by Moumita Deb Choudhury    Mar 17, 2017


India boasts of being the third largest in the world when it comes to internet subscribers and that of a whopping 250 million internet users.Yet, it’s also home to nearly 900 million people who do not have access to the internet. Moreover, the history of the Indian telecom industry shows us, most of the common technologies such as, 3G, 4G, and even the 2G, arrived in India, significantly later than the rest of the world.

The country was not only late in getting its telecom infrastructure in place, but also never got enough, according to a 2016 Akamai report, which shows that India ranked 105th in the world in terms of average internet broadband speed. Though there has been a slight improvement in that part, as new figures indicate that India has risen to 97th position with 5.6 Mbps average connectivity speed. This is certainly a sign of progression but clearly not enough yet.

India lags behind several others

The state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) launched Internet services in India in August 1995. It was the sole internet provider in the country for four years. At that time, India’s broadband usage was growing 20 percent per month, according to the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI). From there till today, we have come a long way, with not just state-run internet providers like BSNL or MTNL but also private companies such as Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance among others offering its internet services. Still India lags behind other countries given the speed of internet and its usage.

According to telecom experts, it is one thing to compare with nations with less population or high per-capita income. But even when compared to populous countries, India’s picture is bleak. For example, China is way ahead of India when it comes to internet access and smartphone ownership, a latest Pew Research report has said. “India and China, the world’s two most populous countries, have long had a competitive relationship and have emerged as major economic powers. But in the digital space, China has a clear advantage,” said Jacob Poushter, senior researcher focusing on global attitudes at Pew Research Center.

It said that since Pew Research Center began tracking advanced technology adoption in the two countries in 2013, the Chinese have consistently reported rates of internet and smartphone use that are at least triple that of Indians. That trend has continued through 2016. The study highlights that 71% of Chinese say they use the internet at least occasionally or own a smartphone. In contrast, only 21% of Indians say they use the internet or own a smartphone.

Low awareness, poor infrastructure

The Centre for Communication and Development Studies (CCDS) in a recent study notes that the country’s infrastructure is still to be blamed for poor internet speed and connection. “India simply lacks the routers, fiber optic links and servers needed to expand access. Relatively few public Wi-Fi spots exist, and broadband connections with faster speeds require infrastructure that is rarely found in urban low-income areas, much less rural ones. Mobile Internet connections are even worse, with patchy connections where customers often complain how 3G normally works at the speed of 2G. Users often find gaps in network coverage depending on their location.”

Laying enhanced FTTH to distant places is a challenge for the service providers. Internet service provider (ISP) will roll-out its services only if they get a reasonable ROI. Not everyone is enthusiastic about it and it should also be considered as to how many Indians have enough disposable income to spend on the internet.

Another related issue that stems up is that the telecom service providers will not invest in installing towers if they are not aptly remunerated. It is not just about 3G or 4G, now even when 5G is around the corner, laying ample cells for widespread deployment may be a deterring factor.

Low level of awareness is another hindrance. Not everyone is aware of the benefits of high speed internet and some do not want to invest in high speed internet which of course comes at a high cost. So instead they settle for comparatively low speed internet which helps them in basic uses such as using emails.

The situation is far more depleting in the rural and remote areas. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, about a fifth of respondents who lived in urban areas and three quarters of rural residents said they didn’t know about the internet and therefore did not use it.

Experts believe, unless the Internet is equally transmitted to smaller cities and rural areas, India’s GDP from the Internet economy will not see a significant growth.