Newsweek recently announced it will publish its last print edition on 31 December. The weekly magazine attributed its decision to the fact that two out of five Americans read and consume information on their mobile devices. Is that a sign?
Not more than 1% of India’s population is truly habituated to depend fully on digital device-based information. But does that mean India is far from going fully digital? My observation and experience says no. India will be digital exponentially and there will be geometric progression of people adopting digital devices, either on their own or through schemes, subsidies and tax holidays. Besides, India will not be required to go through the necessity of being literate and educated through the written medium as the digital form is multimedia and supports seamlessly orally knowledgeable Indian masses.
Last week, Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL) signed a right of way agreement with 14 states to lay the national optic fibre network to the panchayat level, right up to the village council building, to provide 100 mbps (megabytes per second) broadband line to all villages and households. BBNL has been formed by the telecom department to lay high bandwidth lines to all 250,000 panchayats across India before the end of 2013. It is one of the most ambitious plans of the Indian government to provide information connectivity to the masses, and is expected to make a much bigger impact than even the right to information or the rural job-guarantee programme or any national highway project.
Technology minister Kapil Sibal’s passionate project Aakash promises in its second avatar to offer the Android-based tablet computer at less than Rs.3,000, which can potentially lead to mass adoption.
According to Ambika Choudhary, Uttar Pradesh’s cabinet minister, all secondary school children of the state will get tablets this fiscal year and gradually even primary school children. Tamil Nadu has already distributed laptops to school children.
Digital Empowerment Foundation’s baseline surveys at the three locations where BBNL has reached and is testing multiple services, 80% of the households want Internet connectivity, through which they believe they can get better entertainment, education-related information and even government services.
Considering that India boasts of more than 900 million mobile-phone connections, the absolute number of unique users may not be less than 600 million. Matching that number with 375 million households in the country, we may well be having at least one mobile in each household, exposing almost every household to a digital gadget.
Even if delayed, India could get 100 mbps broadband lines to reach panchayats by 2015. There could be a drastic conversion of mass population into Internet users and the entire country would enter the digital era faster than anticipated.
While I foresee a tremendous digital inclusion in India, I believe we also need to parallely work towards some of the musts and these are a mix of efforts that the government and the civil society need to take. For example, the government must rapidly digitally enable, with training as well gadgets, two of its subjects—all 250,000 postmen across the country and the 2.7 million village council members.
This could be achieved by employing 5,000 digital volunteers for one year at the block level to train 600 individuals each in a year. As for the civil society’s contribution, we are deploying about 1,000 digital volunteers in as many locations.
Let me know if you would like to contribute in this endeavour to make India totally digitally inclusive by 2015.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan Award. He is member of a working group for Internet proliferation and governance at the ministry of communications and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar