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Inform

Diminishing the digital


divide in India
T.H. Chowdary
T.H. Chowdary is Information Technology Advisor to the Government of Andhra Pradesh and Director of the Center for Telecom
Management and Studies, Hyderabad, India. E-mail: thc@satyam.com

Keywords Information technology, Communications technology, as well as engineers and knowledge producers are exercised
Developing countries, India about how to bridge this divide.
Abstract India responded to the Maitland Report's Of course there are many types of divides, not all of which
recommendations to solve the ``missing link'' by deciding to are of equal concern and consequence: the divide between
establish community telephones in all of India's 650,000 the educated and uneducated; the urban and the rural; the
villages, a task that is largely complete. The author argues that, wealthy and the poor; those who have electricity and those
similarly, the benefits of access to the Internet are so great that who do not; those who have access to and can afford health
the government should employ a similar strategy. This should care and those who do not have either of these; those who
include improving affordability through a competitive
have radio and TV and those who do not; those who have a
environment, encouraging the use of radio technology and
telephone and those who do not. Each one of these divides
upgrading village public telephones to Public Tele Information
Centers (PTICs). Obstacles such as illiteracy and lack of has a penalty and deprivation for the have-nots. In fact the
computer skills must also be tackled if India is to diminish the ``leftists'' go on asking whether any information technology or
digital divide. the PCs are worth the investment of the nation when there
are so many people deprived of or lacking education,
drinking water, housing, health care, bank loans, TV sets,
The digital divide is a phrase which is increasingly being
etc. It is not for engineers alone to answer these questions
used by sociologists and politicians, especially the populist
and spend their time removing all these divides, before or
variety. The Internet has immense potential to benefit any
along with the digital divide. However, as citizens we can
person provided they are educated and have affordable
agree that access to the digital network, to the Internet,
access to it. Those who are educated, ideally with proficiency
enables access to information and knowledge about every
in English, with a telephone connection ± better still, a
thing from a job opportunity to a market for handicrafts,
broadband data connection ± and a PC or third generation
admission to different schools, as well as for obtaining
mobile telephone with a built in digital camera ± these are the
services from government.
haves of digitized information and knowledge across the
world. Since knowledge is power they can become wealthy, Public policies to diminish the digital divide
healthy, powerful and dominant, not only within the confines Years ago, first the engineers and then the policy makers
of a state but worldwide because of the globalization of were concerned about the ``missing link'', a term that was
economies and trade under the regime of the World Trade used like the ``digital divide'' is now to make the distinction
Organization (WTO). For them the whole world is the market, between those who have a telephone and those who did not.
the whole world is the resource, the whole world is the area The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) appointed
for exerting influence and ingestion of knowledge.
But there are those who are not literate, not educated, not
skilled enough to use any device or do not have the money
to acquire any of these capabilities. These are the have-nots
of digitized knowledge. The former will prosper rapidly and
become richer and richer. The latter may improve only by the The current issue and full text archive of this
(questionable) trickle-down effect. This digital divide is journal is available at
deeply destabilising and distressing, and the policy makers http://www.emeraldinsight.com/1463-6697.htm

info 4,6 2002, pp. 4-8, # MCB UP Limited, 1463-6697, DOI 10.1108/14636690210453361
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a high powered International Commission known as the also being placed in huge numbers in urban areas. There are
Maitland Commission under the authority of the United now about 1.2 million public telephones in the country, 40
Nations. The report it produced was titled The Missing Link. per cent of them in the villages. Teledensity (currently 4.8
Several studies were undertaken in different countries to including mobiles) is not the best indication of access to the
establish the relationship between having an adequate telephone. A better measure is whether every village has a
number of telephones per hundred of population, or a publicly usable telephone and, in the cities and towns,
telephone for common use by a community throughout the whether it is available on every street or not. In this regard
national territory of a country, and its economic growth. They India is doing extremely well.
were able to find a remarkably positive or beneficial The most important considerations for providing public
relationship between the teledensity and the rate of growth of telephones are their location and how unskilled and illiterate
the economy. The report also highlighted the penalties that people can use them. The latter is a question that is equally
people, communities and nations were suffering because of relevant to digital connectivity and the use of Internet. In
inadequate telecommunications for governance, for justice, regard to the telephone, this was solved by putting the
for people's participation in governance, for the conduct of telephone in a common place, usually with the village grocer
commerce and trade, etc. or with a teacher or government official, irrespective of caste.
The ITU/UN recommended that all governments make These people are sufficiently skilled or can be easily trained
adequate investment in telecommunications so that they to dial or key the telephone number for those who have
cover all the population centers, including remote and rural difficulty before handing over the handset for the caller to
villages and communities. It was known then that there were speak. It is this attendant and their skill and service that
people below the poverty line, that many communities did overcome the problem of illiteracy and non-skill among
not have protected drinking water, that health care was users.
inadequate, that they even did not have roads. But yet, it was The Information Technology Task Force constituted by
established that the existence of a telephone in the the Prime Minister in 1998 considered the problem of making
community would vastly improve their life to enable them to the Internet accessible just like the telephone to every
take part in economic exchanges and to obtain the services habitation. The answer was simple: just upgrade the village
they needed. It was accepted that a telephone in a village for Public Telephones (PTs) into Public Tele Information Centers
community use would avoid many unnecessary journeys and (PTICs) by equipping them with Internet connecting devices
wasted trips by bus or other means of transport. If the like the PC or the Simputer. Sufficiently trained attendants of
existence of a mere telephone can bring so many benefits, the upgraded public telephone could obtain the information
how much more would the people benefit if they had access that the seeker wants from the Internet. If the information
to all the information and knowledge that is available? were in English, an English-speaking attendant would be
The missing link was tackled in India in an admirable way. able to interpret as necessary. If the PTIC is equipped with a
It was decided that, in a gradual manner, the telephone ± now it is the IP/VOIP telephone ± and also with a
telecommunication networks should be extended throughout scanner and if the connection is broadband enough, then
the country and that a telephone for community use should e-mail can be sent in any language and even video
be placed in every village. The larger villages were to get the conferences can take place. In this way an unconnected
public telephone first and then those with lesser population. disadvantaged village will leapfrog to a globally connected
Also, in order to reduce the distance for gaining access to a facility. We have the technical means and system in this
public telephone, the criterion was not population density but fashion to bridge the digital divide.
rather that no person in a habitation should have to walk for But is this affordable? With 30-40 per cent of our people
more than so many minutes before they could get to a below the poverty line, obviously it is unthinkable that many
telephone. Today about 500,000 villages out of 650,000 have could subscribe to a telephone, much less to the Internet.
a telephone. Nearly 90 per cent of the rural population is now However, under India's developmental plans, per capita
covered. The 150,000 untelephoned villages mostly have a incomes are rising. And developments in technology will
population of about 100 and they are in difficult areas like the bring down the cost of telecommunications. The combined
Rajasthan desert area, forest areas of Madhya Pradesh or effects of the rise in per capita income and the fall in telecom
hilly areas in the northeast. Now that radio technology, prices, means that affordability will increase non-linearly.
especially low cost Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs), is What we have to do therefore is create the conditions for
becoming available, even these very low population centers telecommunications and the Internet to be available
will get a public telephone within the next one or two years. throughout the territory of India in all the population centers
The existence of the telephone network is the basic and along the streets where homes and offices are situated.
requirement for digital connectivity, i.e. to the Internet. Our aim should be to improve affordability. This means
Even in urban areas there are still millions of people who creating a system for the full force of competition to come to
cannot afford a telephone. Therefore public telephones are the market so that the use of ever-newer technologies will

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reduce costs and, therefore, prices to the user. More and connect to agree a system for sharing of revenues and
more people will have a telephone and PC with Internet ensuring quality of service.
connection but, in the meantime, those on low incomes can The Cor-DECT wireless data-cum-voice technology
use the community PTIC. developed indigenously is the cheapest system for
In the past seven years, India has been de-monopolizing deployment in the rural and low-density user areas. The
the telecommunications sector. Private companies are being government should encourage, even assist, those
allowed to provide the full variety of telecom and information companies which use this technology. There has been so
services including the Internet. There is competition. There is much hesitation and reluctance that it is a wonder that this
domestic and foreign private investment in the sector. Unlike equipment has at last been given approval. However, it is
until two to three years ago, today one can have a telephone heartening that one private operator is intending to place an
on demand, especially a mobile one. Unfortunately, the order for 1.5 million lines of the Cor-DECT system for
service has been made costlier than it could have been by deployment in the rural areas. This will help to bring down
the imposition of entrance fees, revenue sharing, cost- costs and contribute to reducing the digital divide.
unrelated interconnection charges and high spectrum costs. Now that wireless in the local loop is available, we should
None of these have any relationship with the network or establish a large number of radio base-stations throughout
service costs. They are simply meant to generate revenues India to which equipment at customer premises can be
for the government. The Information Technology Task Force wirelessly connected. The radio base-stations form part of
viewed access to information and knowledge as promoting the information infrastructure. Then we can say that the
human development and, just as health services and Internet or the telephone is accessible in about 80-90 per
medical bills are not taxed, the recommendation of the Task cent of the territory of India for say, 95 per cent of the people.
Force not to put any unrelated costs on the Internet were Some progressive state governments want to provide
accepted. That is why for the provision of Internet service education and health information through Primary Health
there is no entrance fee, no license fee, no revenue sharing. If Centers and Government schools. They are to have receive-
all the telecom licenses migrated from the present system only VSATs. Curiously and regrettably, the Telecom
where they have to incur extraneous costs to one like those Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommended that even
for ISPs, then straight away the telephone would be 40 per these receive-only VSATs should be licensed and that there
cent cheaper. I believe that this would double demand. should be an entry fee and revenue share. This is totally anti-
China has recognized the wisdom of not imposing external people. This receive-only matter is for education and health,
burdens on telecommunications and Internet service. This is for human development and welfare. Why should they be
the main reason why affordability is growing phenomenally. taxed? In many countries, especially in the European Union,
China is now adding about 50 million mobile and over 20 receive-only VSATs require only registration and not a
million fixed telephones a year compared to India's figures of license, much less any license fees. The government should
five and six million respectively. It has over 35 million Internet reject the TRAI recommendation.
users compared to less than four million in India. As one of The bulk of Internet users gain access to it through ``dialup
the essential measures to reduce the digital divide, the access''. Competition among the ISPs has brought down the
government should do away with the entry fee, revenue charge for Internet use from over Rs. 40/- (US 80 cents) per
share and the money gouging interconnection charges. This hour to about Rs. 10/- (US 20 cents). But since there is
suggestion is acceptable to the Minister for virtually no competition in the fixed telephone service, access
Communications; he is trying to get the Government to to the Internet from the telephone network costs Rs. 25/- (US
adopt it. 50 cents) per hour. Nowhere in the world is the cost of dialup
Rural areas are, by conventional wisdom, held to be access 2.5 times the price for use of the Internet. There is
unattractive for any telephone or Internet service provider. absolutely no engineering justification for this high dialup
The capital cost involved is high and the revenues are poor. access price. The regulator and the government must bring it
In such a situation it would be wise for the government not to down drastically. In several countries local telephone calls
require any company or organisation wanting to provide a are charged at a flat rate. In India, a three minute call is
charged at one local call unit. If flat-rate local calls are not
public telephone or an Internet kiosk in the rural areas to
introduced, then:
obtain a license. Any such enterprise should be free to
& the time of unit charge should be increased from three
provide these services just by registering with the TRAI/DOT,
minutes to 15 minutes. Then the dialup cost would be
mentioning its area of operation and some details as to what
about half of the Internet usage charge; or
services it would provide. The only condition should be that
& the telephone companies should share the telephone
the technology that it uses for connecting the telephone or
charges with the ISP.
the Internet device to the network is compatible with the
telephone or Internet system available in the area. It should If the Internet should serve the poorest of the poor who want
be left to the ISP and the network operator to which they to talk with their relatives elsewhere in the country, then

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Internet telephony is the cheapest method of voice Universal access
communication. The government should therefore allow IP The most important question is how do we fund the
telephony not only from any Internet booth to telephones extension of the telecommunications and Internet system to
outside the country, as already permitted recently, but also to the un-remunerative rural areas? As the revenues realizable
any telephone within the country. Current restrictions are to will not meet the costs there should be subsidies. How do we
protect the interests of the incumbent and not to promote raise the funds for subsidy and how do we administer and
inexpensive telephony for the masses. how do we carry out the obligation of providing universal
Governments are putting in extraordinary efforts to access? People sometimes loosely talk of universal service.
promote literacy and education. If we are to do away with the Universal service is internationally understood to mean a
dependence of an attendant for telephony or Internet use telephone (and Internet, nowadays) connection in almost
from the public telephones and public Internet kiosks, we every home including those in the rural and remote areas
must include acquisition of computer skills in all our schools. with no discrimination in the quality and range of services
Governments of Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh and between the rural and remote area on one hand and urban
Kerala have now introduced computer education by areas on the other.
outsourcing the equipment and instruction to computer In advanced countries it has come to include not only
companies. In the State of Andhra Pradesh, a three-year Internet connection but also broadband Internet connection.
course costs more than Rs. 2,000/- (US $ 40) per year per India cannot afford such a scheme with 40 per cent of our
student. On the whole we do not spend as much as that on people below the poverty line.
the rest of the education. We must rethink as to how Universal access (UA) means that any citizen anywhere in
Governments can impart adequate enough computer skills the country must be able to make use of a telephone that is
among all the literate in an affordable manner. for the community and not that of a private subscriber. The
In my view, we must provide a telephone and Internet provision of universal access in the rural and remote areas
connection in all high schools, as the Government of Andhra and perhaps in some poor quarters of urban areas, is a
Pradesh has decided (about 100,000 in India; about 12,000 social obligation of the Government. This will have to be
in Andhra Pradesh alone) and other educational institutions. subsidized. This subsidy should be raised by imposing a
In the USA, dialup access has been provided in every universal access charge on the gross revenues of the
classroom in all high schools through the e-rate tax on telephone service companies, basic, limited mobile and
telephone companies. This may be unrealizable in India for mobile. This fund should not go into the Consolidated Fund
quite some time, but it should be our aim, say at least in the of India but should be kept separate and be administered
next ten years. either by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or the
If the educational standards and employment and proposed Communications Commission of India (CCI), or
business opportunities in the rural and remote areas are not the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications
adequate, then the digital milieu will accentuate the divide. I (MIT).
believe that millions of IT enabled service jobs would be Since rural and remote areas are held to be un-
available to India. Should our educated young flock to towns remunerative and since the general wisdom is that no
and cities, with excellent telecom facilities, to get jobs? It is telephone company would like to involve itself in loss
not necessary, if we extend the reliable, secure broadband operations, the government must declare that anybody can
infrastructure to all small towns and rural areas. Then the IT provide the universal access in any place(s) he chooses to
enabled services can be rendered from those places. Jobs the specifications of the MIT. It is ridiculous to require a
for the educated and the disadvantaged in their areas of company to take a license to provide a loss-making service.
residence have a great value. They help reduce the ill-effects It would be sufficient for the universal access provider to
of the digital divide. So we must have a specific plan to register himself; the requirements of the registration should
extend the network and to encourage IT ES companies to be the fulfillment of the specifications for provision of
locate in small towns. universal access.
Telecommunications and information technology are The revenue from PTICs will belong to the company to
essential for economic and human development. States are whose network the universal access facility is connected. In
competing to attract business, industries and to create world most cases, it will be the Bharat Sanchar, the incumbent
class professionals. Connectivity is essential. Therefore because Bharat Sanchar has 30,000 exchanges and in most
telecoms can no longer be left to the exclusive jurisdiction of cases the nearest exchange would be that of Bharat Sanchar
the Union. They should, like education and roads, be in the and not of its P-Telco rivals. Also, as the distance between
concurrent jurisdiction of state Governments. Actually, all the as yet untelephoned villages and the nearest telephone
Telcos but the Bharat Sanchar have state-wide licences only. exchange will be least for Bharat Sanchar, the capital
The Convergence Bill before Parliament must provide for required and ease of maintenance for providing the universal
devolution of regulation to the states. access will be least if the PTIC is connected to the Bharat

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Sanchar's network. But this choice could be left to the connected because the billing will be done by that network
universal access provider. operator. They would have to realize the money from the
The administrator for the provision of universal access PTIC operator.
should list the villages which are as yet untelephoned by The system advocated is totally competition-neutral,
district and invite bids for the provision of universal access technology-neutral, time-neutral and ensures the most
for a period of, say, ten years to the specifications (technical, economic way of discharging the public service obligation of
operational and maintenance and interconnection) the Government.
prescribed by the MIT. The company that asks for the least
subsidy for the ten-year period would be given the authority Content
to provide the universal access in the specified area. It is Perhaps the most important and difficult part of bridging the
possible that a bidder may get several districts or even a digital divide is concerned with information or ``content'' on
state. It should not matter. The amount of annuity payable to Internet Web sites or the services that are available and are
the universal access provider is all that matters. It may be relevant and useful to the people. Today, about 90 per cent
Bharat Sanchar in some states or districts or its rival P-Telcos of Web site content and information flowing on the Internet is
or a new enterprise. It should not matter for the Government. in English. The rest is in French, German, Japanese and
The amount required for the total subsidy, i.e. annuity Chinese. In India, for people in the rural areas and in poor
payments for blocks of three years, might be worked out to quarters of towns, information about their agriculture and the
assess how much money is required to sustain the universal inputs and markets that are connected with it and the
access. The universal access levy on the telephone
services they must receive from Government are most
companies may be varied in the light of these requirements.
relevant. In addition, there is a variety of government
The system described here is broadly what is followed in
information on welfare measures, public health information,
Chile and Peru. This is also what India is doing for the
population, environment, scholarships, etc., that is
National High Way Project. The National High Way Authority
particularly valuable. But will all the content concerning these
is inviting bids for stretches of the highways for construction,
be created and be made available in all the major local
maintenance and operation for a specified period and is
languages? Who would develop this? The costs of such
awarding the contracts to the company which is bidding for
development may not be feasible for a business. Currently,
the least annuity. The amount required for this purpose is
being collected by levy on diesel and petrol. It is also we have some non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)
supplemented by some loans. Maybe part of the vehicle tax and even companies connected with agriculture (e.g.
will be utilized to service those roads. But in the case of Coromandel Fertilizers, Nagarjune Fertilizers) preparing a lot
telecommunications we may not require any loan. We may of material for their customers in the agriculture sector. But
so fix the universal access levy to generate the required even that is in English. Will we be satisfied if the PTIC
amount. attendant acts as intermediary between the non-English
The services that PTICs provide can be periodically speaking user and English content?
reviewed. It may be just telephone in some districts for some
period; it may include Internet connection; it may include The hope
even video conferencing. The social and economic benefits of access to information
The PTICs could be operated either by the universal through digital networks are clear. It brings the possibility to
access provider or they may be entrusted to a physically improve radically the lives of ordinary people around the
disabled person or to any unemployed person. Whether that world. Realistically India cannot afford to define digital
agent or the service delivery shall be part of the universal access in the same way as countries like the USA, but by
access provider can be discussed. There may not be a learning lessons from countries such as China it is possible
uniform solution. In fact the decision may be left to the to develop policies that would bring universal Internet access
network operator to whose exchange the PTIC will be within ten years.

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