Bridge the #DigitalDivide: On chronic inequalities in internet access

Data from the 5th NFHS survey indicates that while internet access is increasing, a significant digital divide remains as a result of issues such as gender gaps and rural-urban gaps. These inequalities are also borne out by other government statistics and our conversations with stakeholders.

07 January, 2021
5 min read


In a first, the National Family Health Survey recorded the percentage of men and women who have ever used the internet from 3.07 lacs households across 17 states and 5 union territories. The Survey revealed that, while internet penetration in the country is rising, a persistent digital divide still remains due to factors such as gender gaps and the rural-urban divide.

State of access to digital infrastructure

As of 2019, out of 5,97,618 inhabited villages, 5,69,897 are covered by mobile services. Furthermore, 1,50,029 gram panchayats have been connected by the BharatNet Project, out of which 1,36,693 have been made service ready. As per TRAI’s Yearly Performance Indicators Report for 2019, India had 718.74 million internet subscribers as of 31st December 2019, an increase of 18.95% over the 604.21 million subscribers in 2018. Internet subscriptions in rural India amounted to 268.43 million - about 60% of the total of internet subscriptions in urban India, 450.21 million. As was widely expected, Indians access the internet overwhelmingly (96%) through mobile devices.

The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators report for April – June, 2020 showed that in June 2020, the number of internet subscribers increased to 749.07 million, a 0.79% increase over the previous quarter, and a 4.2% increase over December 2019. The number of urban and rural subscribers increased to 455.98 million and 293.09 million respectively. The least number of internet subscriptions were in Himachal Pradesh (6.08 million), Jammu and Kashmir (7.50 million), and the North East service area (7.53 million). Overall internet tele-density (the number of internet subscribers per 100 persons) increased to 55.41 (2.1% increase from December 2019), with rural and urban internet tele-densities at 33.00 and 98.35 respectively (10.6% and -7.4% change respectively with respect to December 2019).

The table below displays the monthly growth of broadband subscribers in 2020 based on TRAI’s monthly subscription reports.

Internet Broadband subscribers ( ≥ 512 Kbps download speed) in 2020
Internet Broadband (≥ 512 Kbps download speed) in 2020

Gaps in availability persist

Thus, while the data does show that on the whole access to digital infrastructure is increasing, significant digital disparities still remain. These figures highlight the rural-urban divide in terms of access to the internet, with the number of rural subscribers, despite making up a significant majority of the population, being only 64% of the number of urban subscribers. Rural internet density is also at about a third of urban internet density. Clearly, large strides must still be made to reduce rural-urban differentials.

Other imbalances are also visible. The stark gender based polarities in access to internet service can be seen through data compiled from the National Family Health Survey by Indiaspend.  Their report indicates that in eight 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%), 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% men have used the internet. In only three states and one union territory did more than 50% women from rural areas acknowledge to have used the internet - Goa (%), 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 availability of 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.

Evidence from the field

Conversations we've had with people have also revealed that even where improvements are taking place, several impediments and disruptions plague service delivery. Consider the case of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In June last year, issues with internet access in the islands were brought to our notice. Subsequently, we helped the people of the islands write to the PMO, the DoT and to MP Kuldeep Rai Sharma. These efforts bore fruit in August, when the Prime Minister inaugurated the Chennai and Andaman & Nicobar Islands (CANI) Submarine Cable Systems Project.

Recently, we decided to speak to stakeholders in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands we'd reached out to earlier. They said that while some baseline level of access had indeed been established, several problems remained. One significant issue seemed to be the exorbitant tariff rates, as even the best plan ( that anyways delivered a slow-to-medium speed at a monthly data cap) would cost 2-3 times the tariff for 5G unlimited plans in other areas of the country. In an economy devastated by the pandemic, this has led to many people discontinuing their internet connections. The connection has also been erratic, with some people reporting multiple days without the internet. Lastly, there have been informal reports about the government planning to shift the burden of providing high speed internet onto private companies. Stakeholders indicated that such a move might prove to be detrimental, since private telecom service providers would be more likely to shift the high entry costs onto the users.

Steps taken

Ultimately, efforts to improve and expand India's digital infrastructure must be ramped up. Such a task has been made paramount due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has, in all likelihood, increased inequalities in access to the internet. In this light, the Department of Telecommunications' PM WANI scheme seems to be a good move prima facie. The scheme aims to set up public wifi hotspots throughout the country in a decentralised manner through Public Data Offices which provide wifi services locally. We will put out an explainer describing and analysing the scheme in the coming days.

Important Documents

  1. IndiaSpend's article  '4 In 5 Bihar Women Have Never Used The Internet' (link)
  2. Representation to PMO and DoT on the CANI Project in Andaman & Nicobar Islands for 4G Internet Access dated June 26, 2020 (link)
  3. Letter to Shri Kuldeep Rai Sharma on the CANI Project dated July 25, 2020 (link)
  4. Representation to the DoT on Internet Access issues in Odisha dated September 8, 2020 (link)

* This post was written with significant contributions from Anushree Verma, a 3rd year student of law at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.

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