Go digital or else. Since demonetisation, the government has been sending out this stern message to citizens who are still wedded to cash transactions. But to go digital, a key prerequisite is access to the Internet. How many Indians have it?
Official statistics suggest that the number is as high as 28% of the population.
But as with most statistics, digging deeper reveals that this estimate could be wide off the mark.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s quarterly Performance Indicators Report is the most authoritative source for assessing the march of the Internet in India.
The latest report tells us that India had 36.74 crore (367.48 million) Internet subscribers in September 2016. Based on a population count of 127.7 crore, it translates this into 28.77 Internet subscribers per 100 population.
This is the ‘Internet penetration’ number that often gets cited in articles on digital India. But that’s a wrong interpretation of these statistics.
TRAI data captures the number of Internet connections in India and not the number of households with Internet access. What’s the big difference?
Well, if you live in an affluent neighbourhood in a metro, just look around you. If you have a four-member family (especially with teenagers), you are likely to own at least five Internet connections – a broadband linked to your home computer and four 3G plans on your family-owned smartphones. While you have a surfeit of Internet ‘access’, the driver of your car or the security guard at your apartment is unlikely to have any. Instead of expensive broadband or 3G, they probably head to the browsing centre if they need the Internet.
This simple illustration tells you that 36.7 crore Internet subscriptions don’t equal 36.7 crore Indians connected to the Internet. In fact, after doing away with such duplicate connections, it is almost a certainty that 28% of India’s population isn’t connected to the Internet. Depending on the number of connections hogged by the well-to-do city folk, the actual proportion may be half or even one-third that number.
To gauge the true extent of Internet penetration, the question to ask is how many households in India have at least one Internet connection.
The previous Census (2011) did this and found that 77 lakh households of the total 2,467 lakh households had it; that’s 3% of households. But then, the Census only asked people about whether they had Internet connections on their computers/laptops.
It did not find out how many had Internet connections on their mobile phones, which is likely to be a much bigger number. That gets us to the guesstimate that the actual Internet penetration in India is somewhere between 3% and 28%. That’s a pretty wide range.
The Internet connections that India does have, are pretty unevenly distributed too.
TRAI data recognises that while urban India has 61.9 Internet subscriptions per 100 people, rural India gets by with just 13.7.
There’s also a yawning gap in connectivity between States depending on the state of their network infrastructure and relative affluence. While the city of Delhi alone boasts 2.2 crore Internet connections, the entire North East has just 4.3 lakh. Mumbai alone hogs almost half of the 3 crore connections in Maharashtra. In most States, urban areas account for two-thirds of the Internet users.
Many users are logged on to poor quality connections too, not allowing for data-intensive applications. This is not just due to patchy networks outside of the cities, but also because of the limited affordability of both devices and Internet plans.
As per the TRAI report, of the 36.7 crore Internet subscribers, 17.5 crore (48%) are still on narrowband. That means download speeds of less than 512 kbps. WiFi isn’t as ubiquitous as we city folk think, with just 6 lakh connections across the country. While a majority of users access the web on their phone, nearly half of the mobile phone users (17 crore) are still on the snail-paced 2G. The average GSM subscriber used just 236 MB of data in a month and spent ₹28 on it.
Clearly, for India’s digital divide to be bridged, network infrastructure outside the cities needs to be significantly beefed up. The government is on the job, with the ambitious Bharatnet project to digitally connect 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats.
But for India to truly go digital, phone makers and cellular operators will also need to shift focus from their lucrative Wifi, iPhone and 4G customers, to users who can barely afford ₹30 a month.