Governance

COVID-19: Access to devices a must for bridging the digital divide

Most conversations on digital divide revolve around network availability or supply-side factors, but absence of an Internet-enabled handset is a more immediate barrier

 
By Smriti Parsheera
Last Updated: Tuesday 28 July 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has been a harsh reminder of the fact that access to the Internet is not a convenience or a luxury, but a basic necessity. As schools and colleges suddenly switched to an online-only mode during the lockdown, knowledge ended up becoming the exclusive privilege of those who could participate in online spaces.

Other basic activities like applying for a travel permit or keeping abreast with local advisories also became much harder, if not impossible, for those who lacked Internet access.

Why is it that despite boasting of the world’s second-largest Internet user base and the cheapest data prices, India still sees such a vast digital divide? And what can be done about this in the short- to medium-term?

Adoption of the Internet is shaped by a number of factors, including availability and affordability of Internet services and the social and cultural norms around its use. Yet, most conversations on the digital divide tend to focus mainly on network availability or other supply side factors.

This includes important questions about the government’s obligations to ensure universal coverage, commercial incentives to reach underserved areas and overall state of telecom infrastructure.

In many cases, however, the lack of digital access stems from a much more immediate barrier, namely the absence of an Internet-enabled handset or device. According to the GSMA’s mobile gender gap report, 42 per cent women and 31 per cent men who did not have a mobile phone in India reported that the main reason for this was the cost of the handset.

This was followed by other reasons such as uncertainty about the relevance of having a phone and limitations in digital literacy and skills. Needless to say, the interventions needed to address these gaps are very different from those that may be directed towards better connectivity.

Until a few years ago, the common practice in India was to sell only unbundled mobile phones — where the device is not tied to any particular network — especially in the low cost segment of the market.

The launch of the Jio Phone in 2017, however, changed this trend, leading to the rapid adoption of bundled “smart feature phones”. While this has certainly helped in addressing the affordability issue, these phones do not support that same functionality as a full-fledged smartphone. This can lead to practical as well as aspirational barriers, particularly given the limited selection of devices available in this range.

One of the ways to marry affordability and choice for consumers could be through the promotion of micro-lending schemes to facilitate the purchase of mobile phones by low-income users.

For instance, in 2017, Vodafone had tied up with the non-profit Hand in Hand to facilitate micro-finance loans for the purchase of smartphones by rural women entrepreneurs. This was coupled with the design of suitable data plans and digital training programmes to ensure that the entrepreneurs could overcome the hurdle of questioning why and how to use the Internet.

The use of community platforms, such as the ones promoted by Gram Vaani, a social tech company incubated out of IIT-Delhi, can be another effective route to demonstrate the benefits of digital participation to unconnected groups.

The COVID-19 situation is not ending anytime soon, and we can expect digital relevance to only grow stronger in the coming months. It is, therefore, important to dwell on immediate steps that can be taken to start bridging the digital divide.

Placing affordable mobile devices into the hands of as many users as possible has to be the first step in this process. This will require the cooperation of multiple stakeholders at all levels, including the government, telecom operators, device manufacturers, micro lending institutions and community platforms.

For starters, the government should revisit the recent decision to increase the Goods and Services Tax rate on mobile phones to 18 per cent, at least in respect of low-end devices.

Smriti Parsheera is a lawyer and technology policy researcher. She is a Fellow with the CyberBRICS Project. The views expressed are personal.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of DTE

This was first published in the July 16-31, 2020 edition of DTE

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