The Digital Divide of the Next Billion

As the Next Billion come online for the first time, will knowledge be the new leveller of digital inequality?

When companies speak of the ‘next billion’ internet users, the country they are really thinking about is India, where 750 million people had yet to come online as of 2016.

Data compiled by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) and IMRB International shows that internet penetration, as with other indicators, there exists an urban-rural divide in India. More than 269 million have internet access in urban areas; in rural areas, the figure is 163 million. The difference in population between the two is the shocker – 60 percent of urban dwellers have some form of net access, whereas this number is only 17 percent in rural parts of the country.

In the big picture, only 30 percent of the Indian population had internet access in 2016. But, this is changing, perhaps faster than any other indicator of progress. Rural India, where most Indians live, will contribute the bulk of the three-quarters of a billion who will connect to the internet for the first time in the coming years. This presents a unique opportunity and challenge at the same time.

Mobile Wars

The IMAI and IMRB report did not include the effect that demonetization had on internet traffic. It’s known that it in the aftermath of the currency ban, internet usage went up as many were forced to make greater use of digital payments. But the real jump didn’t happen there.

In 2016, Reliance Jio, a new player in India’s telecom market that is backed by the country’s largest conglomerate, offered high-speed internet for free. It was an irresistible offer in a market where internet-access was never free. In a matter of months, Reliance had grabbed over 100 million customers. Many were users of high-speed internet for the first time.

The impact was visual. Small shopkeepers and roadside vendors could be seen live-streaming cricket matches, browsing videos and watching the news online; in general, accessing the high-bandwidth internet that was once the domain of the privileged in India. As other telecom operators dropped their prices to compete with Jio, the Digital Divide started to get less steep.

The revolution was mobile. Between 2016 and 2017, 80 million new mobile internet subscribers were added to the market. High-speed mobile internet use went up by 91.5 percent. The future, as the Washington Post has noted, is in video and voice. With millions still illiterate in India, the barrier to digital entry is bridged by making use of voice messaging for communication and video-streaming for information consumption. Google now supports using its search engine with your voice in eight Indian languages. The growing speech recognition skills of AI such as in Google Home and Amazon Alexa have been touted as an answer to illiteracy.

The decision of Indian telecom to slash prices and even profits to gain customers will go down as a coup of private enterprise in tackling digital inequality. The impact of Jio and affordable 3G/4G was especially poignant in the wake of middle-class India’s vocal drive for Net Neutrality in 2015.

Net Neutrality and Inequality

When Facebook announced its intention to set up ‘Free Basics’ – restricted internet access at no charge for a handful of websites – Net Neutrality advocates called it a violation of the open and free internet. An online campaign and a barrage of awareness drive protested the move, as well as the plans of Airtel Zero which promised similar service.

The intention of the social media giant was to provide restricted internet access via a propriety platform, for free, to rural areas that are part of the ‘next billion’. Linked to the Digital India mission, it was touted as free internet. But India’s existing base of Digital Natives did not buy it.

The almost unprecedented citizen concern in the affairs of the internet may have played a role in the decision of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to bar data discriminatory practices amongst internet providers. Since then, the TRAI has stood by Net Neutrality – reaffirming its commitment in 2017 after US regulators chose to step back from a Neutral internet.

The movement’s intentions played on the themes of a free, fair and open internet. But its demographics highlighted deep inequalities in internet access and awareness. If it were a debate, it would be fought between digital haves and digital have-nots, with the former prevailing on the motion that ‘No internet is better than some internet.’ The reality was that India’s internet-less population had no voice in the Net Neutrality debate – how could they, when the debate was online?

Author Manu Joseph noted this distortion of privilege levels, saying:

If India’s poor understood what they are being denied by India’s Internet activists, they would hit the streets and bring the nation to a halt.

The advent of cheap telecom made this proposed revolution unnecessary.

A helping hand

Post-demonetisation, the majority of a billion people found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. Those who had no access to digital payments simply could not get on with life as usual. They could not buy their groceries, recharge their phones or even pay their hospital bills.

For one family in a village in Maharashtra, access to digital payments made the difference between life and death for a lady who needed an emergency C-section but didn’t have cash in hand to pay in advance for it. The ATMs there, as across the country at the time, were non-functioning.

In an age of information asymmetry, digital intermediates are important in training the new userbase. Thanks to an initiative called Internet Saathi, a local woman who was trained in navigating the internet and digital services, helped the family pay the hospital using the ‘Paytm’.

Initiatives like Internet Saathi are working to narrow the digital divide, starting with gender disparity. Studies have shown that women in urban-poor communities are 50 percent less likely to access the internet than men.

Madras Courier has asked the question in 2016 – how do mobile-use and internet access play out for illiterate communities? A larger question, worth asking today, is how internet use will play out in the first wave of new digital natives.

Digital inequality could soon no longer be about those with internet and those without it. Knowledge will be the new leveller and creator of inequality. The new divide will be between those with ‘Google-Fu‘ (the skill of using search engines to solve problems) and those without it.

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