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Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2002
Ensuring sustainable livelihoods:

challenges for governments, corporates, and civil society at Rio+10
8 - 11 February 2002, New Delhi

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DSDS 2002: Keynote address 5, 11 February 2002

Digital Divide: Sustainability in the Indian Environment
Mr M S Verma
Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India

Existence of digital divide is now well recognised in almost every part of the world. The present concern is not that it exists but that the divide instead of getting bridged seems to be widening. It is certainly so in the developing world. Non-availability of telecommunication facilities initiated this divide and while countries in the developing world, mostly in Asia and Africa, were still in the process of improving tele-density and bridging the divide that was created due to lack of telecommunications the convergence of ICT and its role and importance in socio-economic growth has created yet another divide which is bigger and more pervasive in character and as of now seems to be only growing. While non-availability of telecommunications largely affected the one to one communication and exchange of information the digital divide not being confined to the telecommunications affects the way one lives, thinks and acts, it changes the very way of life. Very quick and concrete action is, therefore, needed if basic differences in the way people lead their lives in the same country and/or geographical region have to be reduced and far reaching socio-economic repercussions are to be avoided.

The key question is how to manage this process and who can do it? The two streams of telecommunication and information technology that have come together now to usher the information age, have traditionally grown under different types of regime. While telecom has been a government owned and funded sector, the information technology has been an initiative of the private sector. Drawn by evidences of long waiting lists and existence of a resource gap to meet the desired targets, the National Telecom Policy 1994 introduced competition in the telecom sector. A set of reforms based on a comprehensive New Telecom Policy 1999 has now converted the fully Government owned Telecom sector into a market driven business. Therefore, in a competitive market scenario that exists in the entire ICT Sector, the onus of bridging the digital divide, i.e. the responsibility of providing sustained ICT growth, such that can be helpful in bridging the increasing digital divide can not now be solely with the Government. This will have to be borne by all the market participants as well as the other stakeholders.


Encouraging roll out of infrastructure

With liberalisation of telecommunication sector one of the main expectations of the governments world over has been that the private sector would be able to accelerate the process of bridging the divide together with the public sector. In India the efforts made towards promoting the growth of ICT in the rural and semi-urban areas included easy licensing norms for Internet Service Providers (ISPs), subsidised access tariffs for telephones, a conscious policy to promote Tele Info Centres and making Internet a part of the Universal Service support programme. While some progress has been made so far it is miniscule viewed in the context of the enormity of the task and one can not but conclude that we can not even claim having been made a good beginning. No doubt, as anywhere else, there are daunting limitations yet it is an objective which needs to be addressed and addressed very quickly. The rural tele-density in India even today continues to be about 0.6 against the overall tele-density of about 4.5 which we hope to achieve by the end of this year. The NTP 99 targets raising rural tele-density to nearly 4 % by the end of year 2010. We hope that this target will be achieved but even so it may not provide the required extent of connectivity based on which one can hope to build a countrywide ICT oriented socio-economic environment capable of bridging the digital divide. We, therefore, have to look for entirely innovative strategies and rural oriented ICT projects which are not necessarily dependent upon tele-connectivity. Even for tele connectivity we will have to modify our current approach substantially and resort to measures which have hitherto not been tried. It may be necessary to address the issue of rural connectivity separately from that of semi-urban and urban connectivity and deal with it as an independent objective governed by policies which are not necessarily the same as those for growth of telecommunications in the metropolitan and urban areas. For example a broadband network would not have the same kind of relevance in most parts of the rural India as it will have for metropolitan and rural areas, for say, next 5 years. Rural areas have so far not proved profitable for even the limited telecommunications business of voice transmission and the challenge that we face now is how to accelerate the deployment of services in the rural and remote areas which will pay for themselves. A subsidised service regime can not be sustained indefinitely and a demand driven market oriented regime will have to replace the subsidised regime sooner than later if ICT culture has to be established really on a countrywide scale. It is not to deny the importance of government as well as the regulatory support for these activities in the initial stages. Most countries have used the concept of Universal Services Obligations for achieving these objectives and continue to do so. We too, therefore, would have to rely on such mechanisms for sometime to not only support growth of tele-density but also for establishing an ICT culture. The end objective, however, will have to be a gradual and orderly transition from large dependence on USO to market mechanism, in these efforts.


Choice of Technology

Given the resource constraints that we are in, the luxury to experiment with technology does not exist. We need to draw lessons from our own experiences like the one with the Analogue-MARR and exert extra caution while making a choice of technology. It is essential that the technology deployed are proven for their

  • Reliability,
  • Cost effectiveness,
  • Capability to carry broadband or at least being scalable to broadband services in near future.

One of the major bottlenecks in the rural areas remains the maintainability of these services. Wireless plays a major role as it has fewer maintenance hassles. However, it suffers from three disadvantages at the moment:

  1. Requirement of Electricity,
  2. Higher cost of end terminal;
  3. Low bandwidth carrying capability.

These bottlenecks will have to be removed with focussed efforts.

VOIP, which can add value to the ICT Services in rural areas by making lower tariffs possible will need to be harnessed to its maximum potential. Internet Telephony could change the communication boundaries of masses and in not too distinct a future it may be possible to harness its potentials for meeting the requirements of rural telephony.

Complex and expensive end user terminal

One of the main reasons behind the deployment of Public Call Offices (PCOs) that has met with notable success in our country (currently around 10 lakhs), was the inability of every individual to afford a telephone. A similar structure shall have to be used for providing shared access to internet as well. It is important in the long run that the

  • Cost of the end user terminal be brought down significantly,
  • The ICT Services be made available with the existing telephone sets as far as possible.


Standardisation of low cost technologies

While developing countries are turning out to be the largest markets today, not much has been done so far to standardise low cost technologies. Efforts like "Cor-Dect" technology developed by IIT, Madras have had some successes but are still some distance from being recognised as standards for large scale deployments. The TRAI has proposed to the ITU to carry out policy and programs in this direction

Developing content useful enough to fund the required infrastructure

The prime need for sustainability is to focus on innovations in developing content and services that will generate demand from the users. With competition fast eroding the traditional revenue streams in voice, the business plan for the future will have to be based both on voice and data. The trend indicates that most of the revenue will actually come from contents which will be useful for non-english speaking and largely uneducated/semi-educated users whose real as well as latent needs for information, advise and knowledge have to be met. Once they see the value in such a content they will not only look for it but happily pay for it. These services can well have a business case thriving on the increased productivity of the users.

In India, around 65% of the population is working in agricultural sectors and, therefore, it is very important that content on offer be relevant to the agricultural economy. While states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are developing agri-biotech projects a nationwide effort to boost rural e-commerce/e-governance is necessary. Arrangements will need to be made so that assistance from NGO and organizations providing micro credit is available on-line. Parallel efforts are required to rope in institutions like Government, Banks, larger corporates that currently remain off-line as this divide cannot be bridged in isolation.

Preparing the next generation by improving computer awareness and promote e-learning

The forthcoming generations would need to be trained through e-learning initiatives off-line as well as on-line. This possible largely through joint public and private sector initiatives. Compulsion is not going to help. Interest will have to be created and value will have to be seen. Computers need to be provided in ‘schools’/’group’ of schools’ and colleges and computer education made a part of the regular curriculum. This may not necessarily be on-line, off-line media like CD-ROMs etc. are important.



In conclusion it must be said that the problem has to be addressed urgently with care and imagination. The core to success will not be financial resource but innovativeness. Importantly, any programme of bridging the divide with any chances of real success will not be a subsidy oriented, top down provision of resources, funds, computer hardware/software or administrative organization provided by the Government. Success will be only when the programme gains acceptance at the grass root levels in panchayats and blocks. Support will have to come from the local community and the NGOs/corporates with interested presence in the target area. Any such programme will succeed, if it does, not because internet based services would be made available, but because these will be in demand, people who will use it will see value in it and be prepared to pay for the value they receive.