More broadband connections to help India tackle low literacy rates

More broadband connections to help India tackle low literacy rates

“We, the members of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, address this declaration to the world leaders attending the 2010 MDG (Millennium Development Goals) Summit at United Nations (UN) Headquarters."

This is the first sentence of a Broadband Commission report called A 2010 Leadership Imperative: The Future Built on Broadband.

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It urges the UN and its members that “the common vision is broadband inclusion for all. It is a vision that embodies effective and sustainable solutions to the great global challenges of the 21st century in poverty, health, education, gender equality, climate change and the seismic demographic shifts in youth and ageing populations".

The report stresses that “Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) should be used for the benefit of all mankind. Beyond any physical or virtual infrastructure that has preceded it in the industrial revolution or information age, and as a catalyst and critical enabler for recovery in the wake of the recent economic slowdown, broadband will be the basis for digital invention and innovation...that lie at the very heart of our shared knowledge economy and society."

The report tries to envision how broadband can assist in achieving the eight listed MDGs by 2015. It is interesting to note that “in September 2000, when the historic Millennium Declaration was agreed by 189 UN Member States, there were some 740 million mobile cellular subscriptions and nearly 400 million Internet users worldwide", the report says. Now, in 2010, we have a different scenario: “There are more than 5 billion mobile cellular subscriptions and over 1.8 billion Internet users."

The majority of mobile users are in the developing world, but the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) “estimates that by 2015 at least half the world’s population should have access to broadband content and communication".

Estimates suggest that for every 10% rise in broadband penetration, an additional 1.3% is added, on average, to GDP growth figures.

The report has a few notable highlights.

There are between 6,000 and 9,000 dialects and languages in the world, and according to the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 2,500 languages are endangered, and 230 languages have become extinct since 1950. The Internet could have helped preserve these languages.

Ironically, the absence of hundreds of languages on the Internet also creates a great digital divide, and content in the dominating languages becomes the only source of reference and influence.

According to the ITU, the number of languages recognized by Google is 41, and the number of languages with Wikipedia is 271—only a fraction of the total number of languages out there.

The distribution of Internet users by language suggests that a few major languages dominate the online world.

The largest share (30%) of Internet users speak English, followed by Chinese (20%) and Spanish (8%).

The top 10 languages make up 84% of all Internet users. At the same time, the percentage of English-speaking Internet users dropped from 80% in 1996 to 30% in 2007, reflecting the fact that an increasing number of non-English speakers are going online. Still, the chasm persists.

China has more than 364 million broadband connections; India has just nine million.

Considering the nature of broadband as a medium of convergence, India’s best bet is to adapt it pervasively, to bypass problems of low literacy rates and the challenges of multi-lingualism.

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan awards.

Mint is a partner of the Manthan awards.

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