In the midst of the current pandemic, internet access has become more crucial than ever. While the right to internet has not been recognized as a fundamental right under the Constitution of India, in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India it was held that the internet is a medium to exercise fundamental rights. In this blogpost, we aim to highlight the access to internet problems being faced by the citizens of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and how this is affecting them particularly due to the pandemic. In this regard, infrastructural constraints mean the region is languishing with low-speed and prohibitively expensive internet connectivity. Such conditions lead to disproportionate and exclusionary outcomes. In this regard, the pandemic has also delayed the implementation of the Chennai and Andaman & Nicobar Islands (CANI) Submarine Cable Systems Project. The CANI Project is meant to bring high speed broadband connectivity to the inhabitants and was supposed to be completed by June, 2020.
Current Situation in Andaman & Nicobar Islands - INR 50,000 for Internet Access!
Internet and telecommunication services in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are presently dependent on satellite connectivity and have access to limited bandwidth. This has led to unreliable internet connectivity as well as extremely high tariffs with one individual getting a bill of 54,902 INR for their broadband connection. Such figures are unfathomable considering how affordable prepaid and postpaid plans for unlimited voice, SMS and data services have become commonplace in India, in the last 4 years.
Internet connectivity is shoddy at best with there being no internet from 20th to 22nd May, 2020 due to the Amphan Cyclone. Even when there is internet connectivity, it is slow at best with the combined bandwidth availability for Andaman & Nicobar Islands being only 3.2 GBps. For comparison, bandwidth availability in the state of Mizoram is 10 GBps. Individuals on the islands have also complained of highly unstable and below standard connection speed, combined with high latency ranging between 600-1000 ms and packet loss as high as 90% cause failed loading of pages and broken downloads.
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation
With the implementation of a nation-wide lockdown, people have become heavily dependent on the internet. However due to bad internet connectivity in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the people of the islands have been left handicapped. In a letter to Shri R.S. Prasad, Hon’ble Minister of Communications. Electronics & IT, the State President of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Shri Ajoy Bairagi listed down the problems which have arisen as a result of bad internet connectivity.
Students who are currently in schools and colleges across the country have been accessing their classes and resources online. However, the students in Andaman & Nicobar Islands are unable to do so. Additionally, students have not been able to do remote internships or any other skill building exercise. One of the worst affected are college students who are in their final year and have been unable to sit for remote placement interviews due to lack of or unreliable internet connectivity. Students have also not been able to complete online internal and semester end exams which has put them in a disadvantageous position compared to students hailing from other geographical areas who have better internet connectivity. Students who were planning to sit for competitive exams like CAT, GMAT, GATE etc. have also been facing difficulties in preparing for them due to not being able to access online resources. This has created demographic based inequalities with the people of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands being left in a disadvantageous position.
B. Online Financial Transactions
The lockdown has put the country in the unique position wherein people are reluctant to move outside the protection of their homes. In this situation, online financial services have become indispensable because they allow individuals to carry out online transactions from the security of their homes. However, due to unreliable internet online financial transactions are not feasible. This has forced the people of the island to stand in long queues outside banks and ATMs which is not only highly inconvenient but could also be a possible danger to their well-being.
C. Video Conferencing
With restrictions being placed on social and physical contact due to the ongoing pandemic, video conferencing has emerged as one of the foremost ways through which people have been connecting with each other. Video conferencing has become essential not only for those working at home who want to connect with their colleagues but also for relatives and friends as the only means of communication which allows meaningful connection. Mental health issues such as depression and loneliness due to isolation have become high priority concerns.
One of the ways through which people around the world have been handling this is through an increase in video conferencing with video conferencing applications such as Zoom averaging 300 million daily meeting participants by the end of April 2020. However, internet connectivity issues have further increased the isolation issues of these islands which are already marginalized from the rest of the country. Other issues which have arisen due to the pandemic and lack of internet connectivity are difficulty in procuring healthcare services, implementation of e-governance initiatives etc.
The Chennai and Andaman & Nicobar Islands (CANI) Submarine Cable Systems Project
Dependence on satellite connectivity and the problem of limited bandwidth can be solved by the implementation of a submarine communications cable system. A submarine communications cable is a cable laid on the seabed between land-based stations to transmit telecommunication signals across stretches of ocean and sea. On January 9, 2020, Shri R.S. Prasad, Hon’ble Minister of Communications. Electronics & IT and Law & Justice inaugurated the cable-laying work of the CANI Project. The cables are of four-fibre pairs, with the capacity to transfer 6.4 tera-bytes of data per second by each fibre-pair. At the initial stage of commissioning of the project itself, the islands are supposed to get a data speed of 400-gigabytes per second which is nearly 100 times of the existing capacity.
The submarine cables were to be initially laid from Chennai to Port Blair covering a distance of 1,450 kilometres. Afterwards they were to be extended to Rangat, Long Island, Swaraj Island, Hut Bay, Car Nicobar, Kamorta and Campbell Bay in the Union Territory, covering an additional distance of 800 kilometres. The works were expected to be completed by June this year. The total cost of the Project is 1224 Cr INR. This project is being executed by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) under the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), Department of Telecommunications(DoT). The USOF aims to provide Universal Service to all areas of the country through network extension & stimulate uptake of the information and communications technology services. Section 3(1A) of Telegraph Act, 1885 defines Universal Service Obligation as :
Universal Service Obligation" means the obligation to provide access to telegraph services to people in the rural and remote areas at affordable and reasonable prices;
Japan’s NEC Corporation has been contracted by India’s state-owned telecommunications company Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) to design, engineer, supply, install, test and implement the cable system. The project has been divided into eight segments with Segment 1 (Chennai to Port Blair) and Segment 6 (Port Blair to Swaraj Deep erstwhile Havelock) being ready for operationalisation in April, 2020 according to a DoT circular no. 30-174-7/2015-USOF-BB(Vol.IX) dated 24.04.2020.
However, commission of this project has been consistently delayed. This means that even though the two segments are ready to be operationalised they have not been put into a working condition as of yet. The reasons provided are that initially the commissioning of these two segments got delayed due to the cyclone Amphan which hit Eastern India in May, 2020. Post this, the reason for the delay is said to be the COVID-19 lockdown with the timeline for the project now being extended a further six months.
The President of the Andaman and Nicobar Bar Association, Shri Mohammed Tabraiz, has filed Writ Petition W.P. No. 5324(W) of 2020, before the Hon’ble High Court of Calcutta, Circuit Bench at Port Blair. The petition seeks to ensure that the Segments 1 and 6 of the CANI Project are operationalised swiftly. The next date of hearing for the matter is on June 11, 2020.
Access to Internet is essential
The right to access the internet has not yet been recognized as a fundamental right. However, in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India it was held that the internet is a medium to exercise fundamental rights provided by the Constitution of India. The judgement states that expressing one’s views or conducting one’s business through the internet are protected under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution respectively. However, does the Government have a positive obligation to provide access to the internet?
The National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018 seeks to unlock the transformative power of digital communications networks - to achieve the goal of digital empowerment and improved well-being of the people of India. To this end the NDCP attempts to outline a set of goals, initiatives, strategies and intended policy outcomes. This policy has three missions, the first of which is “Connect India: Creating Robust Digital Communications Infrastructure”. The aim of this mission is to promote Broadband for All as a tool for socio-economic development, while ensuring service quality and environmental sustainability. The CANI Project is a step in the right direction to fulfill this mission since the project aims to increase socio-economic development of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands due to increase in economic activities including tourism.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a speech given on December 30, 2018 in Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands has said that, “The government is working to ensure that no corner of the country and its people is deprived of development”. However, development in modern times is impossible without access to high-speed internet which is made available at reasonable prices. As seen above, the people of Andaman & Nicobar Islands are paying tariffs much higher than the rest of the country and still do not have continued access to the internet.
This has put them in a disadvantageous position as compared to the rest of the country. Thus, there is a need for immediate intervention to remedy the situation and prevent it from becoming the root cause of problems which may have long term implications. Internet access is also necessary from a national integration standpoint as it will help in integrating marginalised geographical areas such as the Andaman & Nicobar Islands with the rest of the country.
- The USOF division of the DoT must implement the CANI project according to pre-existing timelines, and if they are not able to do so they must make public the reasons for this. They should also then provide clear timelines in which they estimate the work will be completed. This should include an explicit last date by when the project is complete and a detailed timeline with expected benchmarks.
- BSNL and NEC must highlight if they face any regulatory hurdles, so that those can be worked on by the DoT and the USOF division, BSNL and local municipal authorities.
- Segments 1 and 6, which are ready for operationalisation according to DoT circular no. 30-174-7/2015-USOF-BB(Vol.IX) dated 24.04.2020, must start their trial period by commencing traffic testing. Any permission related hurdles which delay compliance must be resolved by the DoT expeditiously.
- Since internet and telecom services are categorised as “essential services” in various government orders therefore this issue must be given that level of importance by both central (DoT) and local authorities (BSNL, Andaman).
- In the interim, vulnerable populations should be provided with subsidised broad based internet based services/transaction opportunities at CSCs, kiosks, post offices, legal services authorities, cyber cafes, etc.
- Funds should also be allocated under USOF and national/state disaster relief funds for subsidised access to internet connectivity and internet enabled devices. This includes suitable subsidies for all current BSNL users on the islands. Special subsidies can be designed for students, healthcare workers and senior citizens.
One avenue through which accountability can be demanded from these government authorities is through the Right to Information Act.
IFF has been making RTI related interventions as a part of our wider work consistently and we intend to open it up to digital rights researchers and the wider community. If you want IFF to file a RTI request for you please reach out to our Transparency and Right to Information Fellow Anushka Jain via email at [email protected] .