Bridging the digital divide is key to ensuring digitalization
Connecting India to build a digital nation
India has just over 850 million internet subscribers, making it the second-largest online market worldwide, just behind China. India made significant progress in mobile broadband growth – both in terms of adoption and speed. One of the key reasons behind the acceleration in uptake was the launch of the Digital India initiative in 2015. Digital India aims to transform India into a digital society and economy by focusing on three key pillars: digital infrastructure, digital governance, and digital literacy. Since its launch, almost half a billion Indians have come online thanks to the expansion of mobile broadband networks, particularly 4G technology. Indian consumers were quick to adopt 4G when it launched, spurred by intense price competition from Jio and rapid network expansion, which drove the average cost per MB down considerably. As a result, Indian consumers are some of the heaviest data users globally. At the same time, over the past five years, mobile speeds have improved significantly from a median download speed of 5.99 Mbps in 2018 to 15.83 Mbps in 2022. Upload has improved too, from 2.61 Mbps to 4.05 Mbps. With the emergence of 5G networks, we are already seeing mobile speeds uplifting further.
Extending the network reach
Most internet subscribers (96%) use mobile devices to access internet services; wired subscribers account for only 3.6% of total internet subscribers. Furthermore, India’s fixed broadband penetration is still relatively low at 9.1% of households. India’s National Broadband Mission looks to extend broadband connectivity across India. 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) combined with satellite broadband will be able to reach difficult-to-connect remote and rural areas, particularly where fiber hasn’t been deployed, offering competitive speeds. Thanks to the emergence of LEO, satellite technology can provide access to sites outside 5G coverage and backhaul services where the existing infrastructure is lacking.
On the other hand, FWA will use 5G as the last-mile technology to provide broadband connectivity. 5G FWA has already been very successful in the United States, South Africa, and the Philippines, and there is a growing interest in India too. For instance, Jio announced that it will launch Jio AirFibre, a plug-and-play device connected to Jio’s 5G network that will act as a hotspot. While the exact launch date is still unknown, the operator revealed that it is targeting 100 million households with its 5G FWA offer. In addition, Airtel is also piloting 5G FWA services and plans to launch within the next few months.
Mobile at the heart of activities
Mobile is truly at the heart of everyday activities. Our survey shows that streaming video content on a smartphone is one of the more popular activities for Indian consumers; mobile gaming has become increasingly popular among Indian smartphone users, putting it alongside basic day-to-day tasks such as social messaging and use for work. Moreover, smartphone users can access government services such as welfare benefits, vaccines, and pensions. For example, Digital Identity India’s Aadhar now has more than 1.3 billion registered users (equivalent to 92% of the population), and the government has also developed an AI-based portal to engage with pensioners and elderly citizens. The ‘Bhavishya’ portal enables seamless processing, tracking, and disbursal of pensions.
Closing the digital divide
Despite the progress, some challenges in the mass adoption of broadband connection include infrastructure deployment, digital literacy, and affordable devices. Internet penetration across India is 61% overall, but the rate falls to 38% in rural areas. Compared to other Asia countries, there is still room to improve to reach the level of 98% penetration in South Korea.
Whereas mobile internet subscribers’ growth between 2016 and 2020 was in the double digits, it has leveled off recently. There are a few reasons behind this. First, smartphone shipments have slowed down, driven by component shortages, supply chain issues, and a broader economic downturn, making phones more expensive. Second, affordability – Indian consumers are postponing their decision to replace a mobile phone. Third, only some individuals can afford or want to connect to the internet. Finally, this stems from a need for more awareness of digital literacy and skills. There is a need to bridge the gap to ensure participation in the digital economy. To address that, Reliance Jio and the GSMA launched a national rollout of the Digital Skills Program. The aim is to provide training to rural women and people from underserved communities to teach them how to use digital services. However, women in India are still disadvantaged when it comes to internet use – they are 41% less likely to use mobile internet than men. A total of 330 million women in India still don’t use mobile internet compared to 248 million men.
As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, being “left behind” has wide-reaching implications. Therefore, addressing the digital divide, and democratizing access to the internet, is critical. Now, 5G is stepping in to enable digital transformation across multiple sectors of the Indian economy.
(The author is Ms. Sylwia Kechiche, Principal Analyst, Enterprise at Ookla, and the views expressed in this article are her own)