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Diminishing the digitaldivide in India
T.H. Chowdary 
T.H. Chowdary is Information Technology Advisor to the Government of Andhra Pradesh and Director of the Center for TelecomManagement and Studies, Hyderabad, India. E-mail: thc@satyam.com
Information technology, Communications technology,Developing countries, India
India responded to the Maitland Report'srecommendations to solve the ``missing link'' by deciding to establish community telephones in all of India's 650,000 villages, a task that is largely complete. The author argues that,similarly, the benefits of access to the Internet are so great that the government should employ a similar strategy. This should include improving affordability through a competitive environment, encouraging the use of radio technology and upgrading village public telephones to Public Tele InformationCenters (PTICs). Obstacles such as illiteracy and lack of computer skills must also be tackled if India is to diminish the digital divide.
The digital divide is a phrase which is increasingly beingused by sociologists and politicians, especially the populistvariety. The Internet has immense potential to benefit anyperson provided they are educated and have affordableaccess to it. Those who are educated, ideally with proficiencyin English, with a telephone connection ± better still, abroadband data connection ± and a PC or third generationmobile telephone with a built in digital camera ± these are thehaves of digitized information and knowledge across theworld. Since knowledge is power they can become wealthy,healthy, powerful and dominant, not only within the confinesof a state but worldwide because of the globalization ofeconomies and trade under the regime of the World TradeOrganization (WTO). For them the whole world is the market,the whole world is the resource, the whole world is the areafor exerting influence and ingestion of knowledge.But there are those who are not literate, not educated, notskilled enough to use any device or do not have the moneyto acquire any of these capabilities. These are the have-notsof digitized knowledge. The former will prosper rapidly andbecome richer and richer. The latter may improve only by the(questionable) trickle-down effect. This digital divide isdeeply destabilising and distressing, and the policy makersas well as engineers and knowledge producers are exercisedabout how to bridge this divide.Of course there are many types of divides, not all of whichare of equal concern and consequence: the divide betweenthe educated and uneducated; the urban and the rural; thewealthy and the poor; those who have electricity and thosewho do not; those who have access to and can afford healthcare and those who do not have either of these; those whohave radio and TV and those who do not; those who have atelephone and those who do not. Each one of these divideshas a penalty and deprivation for the have-nots. In fact the``leftists'' go on asking whether any information technology orthe PCs are worth the investment of the nation when thereare so many people deprived of or lacking education,drinking water, housing, health care, bank loans, TV sets,etc. It is not for engineers alone to answer these questionsand spend their time removing all these divides, before oralong with the digital divide. However, as citizens we canagree that access to the digital network, to the Internet,enables access to information and knowledge about everything from a job opportunity to a market for handicrafts,admission to different schools, as well as for obtainingservices from government.
Public policies to diminish the digital divide
 Years ago, first the engineers and then the policy makerswere concerned about the ``missing link'', a term that wasused like the ``digital divide'' is now to make the distinctionbetween those who have a telephone and those who did not.The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) appointed
The current issue and full text archive of thisjournal is available at
info 4,6 2002, pp. 4-8,
MCB UP Limited, 1463-6697, DOI 10.1108/14636690210453361
a high powered International Commission known as theMaitland Commission under the authority of the UnitedNations. The report it produced was titled
The Missing Link 
.Several studies were undertaken in different countries toestablish the relationship between having an adequatenumber of telephones per hundred of population, or atelephone for common use by a community throughout thenational territory of a country, and its economic growth. Theywere able to find a remarkably positive or beneficialrelationship between the teledensity and the rate of growth ofthe economy. The report also highlighted the penalties thatpeople, communities and nations were suffering because ofinadequate telecommunications for governance, for justice,for people's participation in governance, for the conduct ofcommerce and trade, etc.The ITU/UN recommended that all governments makeadequate investment in telecommunications so that theycover all the population centers, including remote and ruralvillages and communities. It was known then that there werepeople below the poverty line, that many communities didnot have protected drinking water, that health care wasinadequate, that they even did not have roads. But yet, it wasestablished that the existence of a telephone in thecommunity would vastly improve their life to enable them totake part in economic exchanges and to obtain the servicesthey needed. It was accepted that a telephone in a village forcommunity use would avoid many unnecessary journeys andwasted trips by bus or other means of transport. If theexistence of a mere telephone can bring so many benefits,how much more would the people benefit if they had accessto all the information and knowledge that is available?The missing link was tackled in India in an admirable way.It was decided that, in a gradual manner, thetelecommunication networks should be extended throughoutthe country and that a telephone for community use shouldbe placed in every village. The larger villages were to get thepublic telephone first and then those with lesser population. Also, in order to reduce the distance for gaining access to apublic telephone, the criterion was not population density butrather that no person in a habitation should have to walk formore than so many minutes before they could get to atelephone. Today about 500,000 villages out of 650,000 havea telephone. Nearly 90 per cent of the rural population is nowcovered. The 150,000 untelephoned villages mostly have apopulation of about 100 and they are in difficult areas like theRajasthan desert area, forest areas of Madhya Pradesh orhilly areas in the northeast. Now that radio technology,especially low cost Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs), isbecoming available, even these very low population centerswill get a public telephone within the next one or two years.The existence of the telephone network is the basicrequirement for digital connectivity, i.e. to the Internet.Even in urban areas there are still millions of people whocannot afford a telephone. Therefore public telephones arealso being placed in huge numbers in urban areas. There arenow about 1.2 million public telephones in the country, 40per cent of them in the villages. Teledensity (currently 4.8including mobiles) is not the best indication of access to thetelephone. A better measure is whether every village has apublicly usable telephone and, in the cities and towns,whether it is available on every street or not. In this regardIndia is doing extremely well.The most important considerations for providing publictelephones are their location and how unskilled and illiteratepeople can use them. The latter is a question that is equallyrelevant to digital connectivity and the use of Internet. Inregard to the telephone, this was solved by putting thetelephone in a common place, usually with the village groceror with a teacher or government official, irrespective of caste.These people are sufficiently skilled or can be easily trainedto dial or key the telephone number for those who havedifficulty before handing over the handset for the caller tospeak. It is this attendant and their skill and service thatovercome the problem of illiteracy and non-skill amongusers.The Information Technology Task Force constituted bythe Prime Minister in 1998 considered the problem of makingthe Internet accessible just like the telephone to everyhabitation. The answer was simple: just upgrade the villagePublic Telephones (PTs) into Public Tele Information Centers(PTICs) by equipping them with Internet connecting deviceslike the PC or the Simputer. Sufficiently trained attendants ofthe upgraded public telephone could obtain the informationthat the seeker wants from the Internet. If the informationwere in English, an English-speaking attendant would beable to interpret as necessary. If the PTIC is equipped with atelephone ± now it is the IP/VOIP telephone ± and also with ascanner and if the connection is broadband enough, thene-mail can be sent in any language and even videoconferences can take place. In this way an unconnecteddisadvantaged village will leapfrog to a globally connectedfacility. We have the technical means and system in thisfashion to bridge the digital divide.But is this affordable? With 30-40 per cent of our peoplebelow the poverty line, obviously it is unthinkable that manycould subscribe to a telephone, much less to the Internet.However, under India's developmental plans, per capitaincomes are rising. And developments in technology willbring down the cost of telecommunications. The combinedeffects of the rise in per capita income and the fall in telecomprices, means that affordability will increase non-linearly.What we have to do therefore is create the conditions fortelecommunications and the Internet to be availablethroughout the territory of India in all the population centersand along the streets where homes and offices are situated.Our aim should be to improve affordability. This meanscreating a system for the full force of competition to come tothe market so that the use of ever-newer technologies will
info 4,6 2002
reduce costs and, therefore, prices to the user. More andmore people will have a telephone and PC with Internetconnection but, in the meantime, those on low incomes canuse the community PTIC.In the past seven years, India has been de-monopolizingthe telecommunications sector. Private companies are beingallowed to provide the full variety of telecom and informationservices including the Internet. There is competition. There isdomestic and foreign private investment in the sector. Unlikeuntil two to three years ago, today one can have a telephoneon demand, especially a mobile one. Unfortunately, theservice has been made costlier than it could have been bythe imposition of entrance fees, revenue sharing, cost-unrelated interconnection charges and high spectrum costs.None of these have any relationship with the network orservice costs. They are simply meant to generate revenuesfor the government. The Information Technology Task Forceviewed access to information and knowledge as promotinghuman development and, just as health services andmedical bills are not taxed, the recommendation of the Task Force not to put any unrelated costs on the Internet wereaccepted. That is why for the provision of Internet servicethere is no entrance fee, no license fee, no revenue sharing. Ifall the telecom licenses migrated from the present systemwhere they have to incur extraneous costs to one like thosefor ISPs, then straight away the telephone would be 40 percent cheaper. I believe that this would double demand.China has recognized the wisdom of not imposing externalburdens on telecommunications and Internet service. This isthe main reason why affordability is growing phenomenally.China is now adding about 50 million mobile and over 20million fixed telephones a year compared to India's figures offive and six million respectively. It has over 35 million Internetusers compared to less than four million in India. As one ofthe essential measures to reduce the digital divide, thegovernment should do away with the entry fee, revenueshare and the money gouging interconnection charges. Thissuggestion is acceptable to the Minister forCommunications; he is trying to get the Government toadopt it.Rural areas are, by conventional wisdom, held to beunattractive for any telephone or Internet service provider.The capital cost involved is high and the revenues are poor.In such a situation it would be wise for the government not torequire any company or organisation wanting to provide apublic telephone or an Internet kiosk in the rural areas toobtain a license. Any such enterprise should be free toprovide these services just by registering with the TRAI/DOT,mentioning its area of operation and some details as to whatservices it would provide. The only condition should be thatthe technology that it uses for connecting the telephone orthe Internet device to the network is compatible with thetelephone or Internet system available in the area. It shouldbe left to the ISP and the network operator to which theyconnect to agree a system for sharing of revenues andensuring quality of service.The Cor-DECT wireless data-cum-voice technologydeveloped indigenously is the cheapest system fordeployment in the rural and low-density user areas. Thegovernment should encourage, even assist, thosecompanies which use this technology. There has been somuch hesitation and reluctance that it is a wonder that thisequipment has at last been given approval. However, it isheartening that one private operator is intending to place anorder for 1.5 million lines of the Cor-DECT system fordeployment in the rural areas. This will help to bring downcosts and contribute to reducing the digital divide.Now that wireless in the local loop is available, we shouldestablish a large number of radio base-stations throughoutIndia to which equipment at customer premises can bewirelessly connected. The radio base-stations form part ofthe information infrastructure. Then we can say that theInternet or the telephone is accessible in about 80-90 percent of the territory of India for say, 95 per cent of the people.Some progressive state governments want to provideeducation and health information through Primary HealthCenters and Government schools. They are to have receive-only VSATs. Curiously and regrettably, the TelecomRegulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommended that eventhese receive-only VSATs should be licensed and that thereshould be an entry fee and revenue share. This is totally anti-people. This receive-only matter is for education and health,for human development and welfare. Why should they betaxed? In many countries, especially in the European Union,receive-only VSATs require only registration and not alicense, much less any license fees. The government shouldreject the TRAI recommendation.The bulk of Internet users gain access to it through ``dialupaccess''. Competition among the ISPs has brought down thecharge for Internet use from over Rs. 40/- (US 80 cents) perhour to about Rs. 10/- (US 20 cents). But since there isvirtually no competition in the fixed telephone service, accessto the Internet from the telephone network costs Rs. 25/- (US50 cents) per hour. Nowhere in the world is the cost of dialupaccess 2.5 times the price for use of the Internet. There isabsolutely no engineering justification for this high dialupaccess price. The regulator and the government must bring itdown drastically. In several countries local telephone callsare charged at a flat rate. In India, a three minute call ischarged at one local call unit. If flat-rate local calls are notintroduced, then:
the time of unit charge should be increased from threeminutes to 15 minutes. Then the dialup cost would beabout half of the Internet usage charge; or
the telephone companies should share the telephonecharges with the ISP.If the Internet should serve the poorest of the poor who wantto talk with their relatives elsewhere in the country, then
info 4,6 2002

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