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Here are some bare facts brought out by the National Family Health Survey Round 5 (NFHS 5) with regard to access to phones and the internet in India.

· Mobile phones are the most widely owned asset in India: 93.3% of all households own them, 96.7% of urban households and 91.5% of rural households being in possession of at least one. Indians are keener to get connected than to sleep in comfort: the second most widely owned household article, cot or bed, is owned by only 89.4% of all households, although its ownership is uniform across urban and rural areas.

· Internet access is far more restricted: less than half of all households (48.8%) have used the internet, access being skewed towards urban households, 64.6% of whom can go online, whereas only 41% of rural households have that capability. One-third of women and 51% of men of the 15-49 age group claimed to have used the internet.

· The bulk of internet access is via phones: only 9.3% of households own computers, and that, too, only because 19.3% of urban households own at least one, while only 4% of rural households have that luxury. Further, only 2.3% of households have access to a landline phone.

· As large a proportion as 95.7% of all households own a bank or a post office account. The survey reported that 79% of women owned a bank account of their own. While 53% of the women surveyed had a phone of their own, only a fifth of them used the phone for operating their bank accounts. This is so, even as 71% of women can read the text messages they receive.

· Exposure to mass media is surprisingly limited: 41% of women and 32% of men lack regular access to newspapers, journals, television, radio or cinema. This deficiency has worsened since NFHS 4 of 2015-16. This trend is at odds with the finding that 67.8% of all households own a television set.

· Not surprisingly, wall posters/writings are nearly as large a source of information on family planning for women as television. Still for women below the age of 35, the internet also was an important source of such information, upwards of 30% claiming to have obtained information on family planning on the internet.

· Only one-third the women surveyed had ever used the internet, while for men, the proportion was much higher, double that level for men in the age group 25-29. Expectedly, internet usage among women skewed heavily in favour of urban areas (51.8% vs 24.6%) and the educated (72% for those with schooling of 12 years or more, 4.7% for those with no schooling). Perhaps, not so surprisingly, internet usage was significantly higher among unmarried women than among married women (50.3% and 28.7%).

These findings present a somber picture of a devastating gap between soaring aspirations of the Indian people, symbolized by privileged and near-ubiquitous ownership of phones, and the low internet use and exposure to mass media reported especially by women, together spelling thwarted ambition and aborted productive potential.

Making 5G connectivity available to all is the way to remedy this problem. This can be done by lowering the cost of spectrum for telecom operators, opening up satellite broadband for backhaul, particularly in remote areas, instituting financing schemes for phones capable of accessing 5G networks and using funds from the Universal Service Obligation Fund.

If easy financing schemes, supplemented with subsidies for the poorest, make 5G phones affordable for all, spectrum costs can come down. Operators who have leased 2G spectrum can switch off this spectrum-inefficient service and redeploy them for offering 5G services, augmenting spectrum availability and, thereby, lowering the cost of spectrum.

Encouraging large pools of savings, such as pension funds, to take part in spectrum auctions, and lease from the state large swathes of spectrum for upfront payment, which they could recoup, along with a profit, by sub-leasing spectrum for short tenures, as short as an hour or even the duration of a call, to telecom operators would both meet the goal of optimizing government revenues and sparing operators the burden of huge upfront capital costs on spectrum acquisition.

Spectrum is needed to make a call. There is no reason for any operator to have chunks of dedicated spectrum to itself. All an operator needs is availability of spectrum for use whenever it wants for a competitive price. If multiple bulk holders of spectrum trade spectrum for short durations on a spectrum exchange, the way power is now traded on the power exchange, this goal can be met. Technological advances such as software-defined radio permit spectrum-hopping by handsets across large bandwidths. The fancier the phone, the greater the flexibility on spectrum usage, the lower the cost of offering telephony. The cost of the fancy phone can be brought down by production at scale. Even the resultant low price can be made further affordable through easy financing schemes, fortified with subsidy where needed.

The bane of mobile telephony is backhaul. Right now, large capacity optical fiber cables connect towers in towns and towns themselves. Laying optical fiber cable involves obtaining the right of way from local authorities, state governments and landlords, all with palms that itch to squeeze the necks of these geese with golden eggs that flock to their property seeking the right to lay their cables under the ground. In cities, this is viable, even after meeting extortionary demands for right of way. But in rural areas, it is far better and cheaper to rely on broadband connections offered by multiple providers of low-earth-orbit satellite connectivity.

Why go to these lengths to let Indians access the internet freely? So that they can steep themselves further in the misinformation in multimedia purveyed by WhatsApp forwards?

The internet is a powerful enabler of social inclusion, healthcare, education and training, and new income-earning opportunities in rural and remote areas. One key feature of 5G is low latency: the gap between triggering an effect online and realizing the effect is just microseconds long. This is vital not just for high-end gaming but also for remote surgery. India is painstakingly building up primary health centres in rural areas. But these are sadly understaffed with skilled personnel. Surgery by robotic arms that can be remotely manoeuvred by a trained surgeon sitting in his office in a town, with personnel with far less demanding qualifications in attendance at the rural site of the surgery would be perfectly feasible, using 5G connectivity.

With the proliferation of online courses and a plentiful supply of how-to videos on YouTube on any subject imaginable, the ability of people across the land to educate themselves and become productive is immense – potentially. What can make this potential reality is the large data throughput capability of 5G.

Data throughput on 5G can greatly increase the audio-visual media, raising a challenge for television news channels. The populace at large can be informed as well as misinformed to a far greater extent than now. Exposure to mass media will cease to be a problem with ubiquitous data connectivity on mobile devices.

Ubiquitous broadband will encourage more people to use digital finance, paving the way for financial inclusion as well.

New income generation opportunities can be created by stable high-speed data connectivity. Farmers can be trained on better crop husbandry. Remote hilly villages can grow orchids expected to be in demand at the next season’s auctions in Amsterdam, with the help of training videos and real-time instructions.

The relatively uneducated need more data, compared to the relatively educated. An Einstein only needs to send a short message with E=mc2 at its core to explain the special theory of relativity to a fellow physicist, but to explain that to the likes of you and me, he might feel the need for a 30-minute video in high-definition.

Give Indians high-speed broadband, to unleash their creative potential. They have little to lose, poor as a lot of them are, and a world to win. Affordable 5G is the way to go.

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