Introducing IFF’s Connectivity Tracker #MapTheDigitalDivide

tl;dr

IFF is introducing its Connectivity Tracker, where we will compile available data related to connectivity each quarter, including data on telecom subscriptions, internet connections, urban and rural penetration rates, average data usage per user etc. The first edition of the tracker contains data from January 2020 till August 2021.

Introduction

The internet is an indelible part of modern Indian life. From social media platforms to apps for daily services to online schooling to online portals for receiving government benefits, the internet is everywhere. This makes the task of ensuring internet access to every citizen of India a task of paramount importance (to see what the government can do to improve internet access, see our explainer on improving internet access here).

Unfortunately, a significant digital divide still persists to this date. The effects of this digital divide are very serious. For example, millions of children have had their education halted as only 22% of schools have the internet facilities that would have enabled them to shift to online learning. Malnutrition in Jharkhand may have also been a result of bad internet connections at PDS shops. In August this year, a 13 year old tribal boy reportedly fell from a cliff and died while trying to search for internet connectivity to join his online class.

Such incidents are extremely horrifying, and so it is imperative that policy makers address such issues at the earliest. Thus, we have decided to compile data from various sources to provide a holistic view of the state of internet access in India at present. It is important to note here that internet access does not just mean the presence of internet connectivity - it is just as essential that access be provided in an equitable manner. Therefore, we have also included data on the many digital inequalities that pervade our country. Lastly, we will also look at what the government is doing to alleviate these problems.

Telecom subscribers in India

The total number of telephone subscribers increased to 1209.58 million by the end of August 2021 (compared to 1177.20 million at the end of January 2020). This is driven mainly by an increase in wireless subscribers, from 1180.96 million at the end of March 2021 to 1186.72 million at the end of August 2021. Overall teledensity decreased by 0.28% to 88.45%, as a result of urban tele-density increasing by 0.49% to 141.52%.

Rural areas have also witnessed increasing connectivity: rural telephone subscribers have grown by 2.52% between August 2020 and August 2021 to 538.28 million, while rural tele-density increased by 1.21% to 60.27%. However, the shares of urban (~55%) and rural (~45%) subscribers in total subscriptions have remained stagnant.

Internet subscribers in India

Internet Penetration continues to rise in India, and the total number of internet subscribers has increased to 833.71 million by June 2021. Wireless subscriptions account for 97.17% of all internet subscriptions, while the share of narrowband subscriptions 2.83%.

Internet penetration in rural areas also continues to grow as rural internet subscribers have increased by 50.9 (17.7 %) million since March 2020, and stand at 336.87 million as of June 2021. However, rural internet penetration is still at 37.74%, approximately a third of urban internet penetration at 105.66%, despite urban internet penetration dropping slightly in the April-June 2021 quarter.

The Average wireless data usage per subscriber per month has increased to 14.1 GB in June 2021, as compared to 11 GB in March 2020, while the average minutes of usage per subscriber increased from 12.5 hours per month in March 2020 to 13.55 hours per month in June 2021.The Average revenue realization per GB wireless data has decreased to Rs. 9.8 in June 2021, from Rs. 11.23 in March 2020.

Inequalities in internet access

According to the 5th round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), in ten states and two union territories - Bihar (20.6%), Andhra Pradesh (21.0%), Tripura (22.9%), West Bengal (25.5%), Telangana (26.5%), Assam (28.2%), Gujarat (30.8%), Meghalaya (34.7%), Andaman & Nicobar Islands (34.8%), Karnataka (35.0%), Maharashtra (38.8%), and Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu (36.7%) - less than 40 percent women have used the internet. Comparatively, in the same states, more than 40% of men have used the internet. Only in three states and one union territory did more than 50% women from rural areas acknowledge to have used the internet - Goa (68.3%), Kerala (57.5%), Sikkim (68.1%), and Ladakh (54%).

Meanwhile, there were only 6 states and 1 union territory - Meghalaya (42.1%), Assam (42.3%), Bihar (43.6%), Tripura (45.7%), Andaman and Nicobar Islands (46.5%), West Bengal (46.7%), and Andhra Pradesh (48.8%)  - in which less than 50% of the men had used the internet. Even in states with low overall internet penetration such as Bihar, the percentage of women who have used the internet was less than half of that of men.

Furthermore, these figures do not help in providing a full picture. The survey only measured if a person had ever used the internet, and did not collect details about the ease of access to internet services or the regularity of their usage. Thus, while the survey shows awareness about the internet, it does not necessarily cover the actual usage of the internet, and so actual digital divides may be larger.

Government schemes to increase internet access

Here, we look at the progress of the various schemes being undertaken by the government to improve internet access:

1. BharatNet

The BharatNet project is being implemented in a phased manner to provide broadband connectivity to all the Gram Panchayats (2,62,825 as of 09.07.2021) in the country. The project aims to provide last mile connectivity through Wi-Fi or any other suitable broadband technology including Fibre to the Home services to all the Gram Panchayats (GPs) in the country.

As of 9th July, 2021, by laying 5,30,928 km of optical fibre cable (OFC), 1,53,836 GPS have been made Service Ready on OFC media. Further, 4,083 GPs have been made Service Ready on Satellite media. In total, 1,57,919 GPs have been made service ready under the BharatNet project in the country. As of 4th August, 2021, the total approved cost of the BharatNet project is now Rs. 61,109 crores, and its target date of completion is August, 2023.

2. PM-WANI Scheme

PM-WANI (Wi-Fi Access Network Interface) is a scheme meant to increase Wi-Fi access throughout the country (for a more detailed explanation of the scheme, see this explainer). As of 28th July, 2021, 48,799 Wi-Fi Access Points have been installed throughout the country.

3. National Broadband Mission

The National Broadband Mission is an extension of the Bharatnet project and was launched on 17th December, 2019 to expand the digital communications infrastructure and provide affordable and universal access to broadband for all. The key deliverable of this mission is the implementation of broadband connectivity to all villages and districts in India by 2022. The projected investment under the National Broadband Mission is Rs 7 lakh crore, of which the government plans to contribute 10% i.e. Rs 70,000 crores through the Universal Service Obligation Fund.

4. Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan

Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA) scheme was approved by the Government of India in 2017 to promote digital literacy in rural India by training 6 crores rural households to operate computer or digital access devices (like tablets, smart phones etc.), send and receive emails, browse the Internet, access Government services, search for information, undertake digital payment, etc. This scheme especially focuses on the marginalised sections of the society including Scheduled Castes (SC) / Scheduled Tribes (ST), women, differently-abled persons, etc.

Unfortunately, the scheme has witnessed slow progress. As against the targeted 6 crore rural households (one person per household) only around 4.54 crore candidates were enrolled and 2.71 crore candidates were certified as of 17th March, 2021. In 2019, a report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology presented figures from an independent impact assessment of PMGDISHA, which indicated that

  • Only 50.53% of the respondents felt that their training had led to an increased confidence in the use of digital technology and a subsequent increase in earning capacity;
  • Only 37.63% of the respondents stated that they used digital technologies for daily office/school work;
  • Only 30% of the respondents said that they were using the internet to access government services;
  • Only 24.75% of respondents affirmed that they were able to teach digital skills to their family members after attending the program.

This is the first edition of our connectivity tracker, and we hope to expand the scope of this tracker to include more sources of data and analytics. Thus, we would welcome any comments on how we can improve this further.

For those wishing to access the compiled data, please see the sheets linked below.

Important documents

  1. Compiled data from the TRAI’s Performance Indicator Reports (link)
  2. Compiled data from the TRAI’s Telecom Subscription Reports (link)
  3. IFF’s Explainer on improving internet access (link)
  4. Previous blogpost titled ‘Bridge the #DigitalDivide: On chronic inequalities in internet access’ dated 7th January, 2021 (link)