Author : Anirban Sarma

Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 22, 2021
Though recent data suggests India is close to achieving universal broadband, poor connectivity remains a critical challenge
Quantity over quality? Towards universal broadband in India In August this year, the number of broadband connections in India crossed 808 million following a recent surge in new subscribers. Ostensibly, India is now a step closer to realising its goal of broadband for all. Exultation over this milestone, however, may have been tempered by the findings of the Digital Quality of Life Index 2021 (DQL), an annual global ranking released in September. India ranks 59th out of 110 countries on the DQL Index, having dropped two spots since last year. Of the various parameters used to assess the quality of one’s online experience, the lack of congruence between broadband speed and stability in India is especially conspicuous. According to the Index, the country appears to enjoy relatively stable broadband connectivity but speed remains problematic. On the whole, this places India’s ‘Internet quality’—a key DQL indicator—at 67th position, and thus, quite decisively within the lower half of countries surveyed. Traditionally, Indian Internet service providers have touted high broadband speeds as their USP; however,  speed continues to be a major concern and the subject of much ongoing scrutiny. However, there is a growing sense of urgency amongst stakeholders in the broadband connectivity ecosystem about the need for a more holistic approach that prioritises quality, reliability and user experience. The Broadband India Forum, for instance, has declared that by 2025, India must aim to be amongst the top 10 countries offering the best broadband user experience. This is a timely and necessary re-orientation of priorities. Taken together, the high penetration and improved quality of broadband could be a game changer for India’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Broadband, socio-economic growth, and the SDGs 

Broadband connectivity bears a strong correlation to socio-economic growth. As an oft-cited World Bank study has found, every 10-percentage-point increase in a country’s broadband penetration provides a boost of 1.38 additional percentage points to its GDP growth. Target 9.c of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is therefore strategic in urging countries to ‘significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020’. The target’s deadline is considerably shorter than the 2030 Agenda as a whole. This reflects an understanding that bringing people online at the earliest is crucial for realising the SDGs’ other goals and targets.
The target’s deadline is considerably shorter than the 2030 Agenda as a whole. This reflects an understanding that bringing people online at the earliest is crucial for realising the SDGs’ other goals and targets.
With a body of global research to back the claim, it is now something of a truism that broadband in India will have a transformative effect on social development, particularly in the areas of governance, education and healthcare; economic growth, especially the growth of employment and GDP; and strengthening the knowledge economy. These ideas and the core assumptions underlying Target 9.c have shaped India’s National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), a progressive blueprint that aims to ‘connect India’ by ‘promoting broadband for all as a tool for socio-economic development while ensuring service quality’ by 2022. The principle of service quality must be highlighted and operationalised vigorously if broadband-led transformation is to be achieved. But while the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has made a number of recommendations for improving broadband quality, they have—for the most part—not yet been implemented or mainstreamed into the discourse on ICTs for development. Major normative frameworks too reveal curious gaps. The Global Indicator Framework that is part of the SDGs is silent about the need to quantify the lived experience of communities engaging with broadband and ICTs. The indicator for Target 9.c is simply the ‘proportion of population covered by a mobile network, by technology’. At the national level as well, some of the SDG indicators adapted by the NITI Aayog are characterised by a similar omission. The Indian indicators for Target 9.c are the ‘number of Internet connections per 100 persons’ and the ‘number of mobile connections per 100 persons’. These figures alone are unlikely to offer much insight into the digital well-being of citizens.

The human costs of poor broadband quality 

The massive demand for broadband and the spike in its use since the COVID-19 outbreak have underscored the fragility of Internet quality even as the number of users has continued to rise. Across sectors, the human costs of poor connectivity have become starkly apparent. Education, of course, has been amongst the sectors most severely hit by poor connectivity as students and teachers migrated en masse to online modes of learning. A survey of 2,200 teachers in Gujarat that sought to probe the pros and cons of online education found that over 56 percent of teachers believed that poor Internet connectivity was the principal factor hampering education. Amongst numerous other accounts from  India, this trend was vividly borne out by a media story about students from a village in Mizoram who struggled to attend online classes and give examinations from a hilltop inside a forested area, as it was the only spot where their mobile broadband connections worked, though sporadically. Units of local governance too have been affected by the vagaries of Internet quality. And in the space of healthcare, the process of rural COVID-19 vaccination has suffered from a range of factors including weak connectivity and the lack of Internet access. Less than half of the 2.5 lakh village panchayats targeted by the flagship BharatNet rural broadband project have Wi-Fi hotspots, but only about 65,000 of them are operational. As a village head in Rae Bareli pointed out, a hotspot had been installed in their village a while ago but it no longer worked. Ironically though, the government’s Target 9.c indicators would count many of these community members as beneficiaries of national efforts to provide broadband for all.

Looking ahead

As the number of broadband connections in India inches towards the 900-million mark, the country appears to be on course for achieving universal broadband. The encouraging numbers though continue to mask a variety of digital divides—geographical, income-based, and gendered. Rectifying these imbalances is critical. Simultaneously, the issue of broadband quality must be tackled head-on. The TRAI recently revised the minimum mandated threshold for Internet download speed in India from 512 kbps to 2 mbps. This is a useful first step, but given that most Internet service providers already operate above this threshold, perhaps it is time to re-examine the definition of broadband and build consensus about the need to upscale Internet speeds much more substantially. Even upload capacities require reconsideration in light of the newer demands of a post-pandemic world. A further policy response could be to strengthen ‘Quality of Service’ (QoS) agreements with network providers, evolve a more robust system to monitor compliance with QoS norms, and thus ensure that consumers receive their due.
Extensive partnerships with community-focused agencies and development actors must therefore be built, along with forums for community feedback to influence broadband network design, policymaking processes, and course correction
Most importantly, a people-centric approach to quality improvement must be adopted. The needs and experiences of local communities ought to be better understood and applied to the rollout of broadband and assessments of its quality. Extensive partnerships with community-focused agencies and development actors must therefore be built, along with forums for community feedback to influence broadband network design, policymaking processes, and course correction. 2020, the year for meeting Target 9.c, is behind us. But several other potential inflection points lie ahead. As India works towards the projected outcomes of the NDCP by 2022, the Broadband Commission’s Advocacy Targets by 2025, and the SDGs in 2030, it cannot afford to privilege broadband user numbers over broadband quality. Empowerment, and not mere access, must gain centre stage.
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Anirban Sarma

Anirban Sarma

Anirban Sarma is Deputy Director of ORF Kolkata and a Senior Fellow at ORF’s Centre for New Economic Diplomacy. He is also Chair of the ...

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