INDIA OFFLINE : ' Digital Dead Zones '. Stalling internet growth is very bad news for the poor of India.

A number of recent studies point to the scale, and deep unfairness, of the digital shortfall.  GSMA, a telecoms trade body, estimates that half of adult Indian men owned a smartphone in 2021. Only a quarter of Indian women did.

Another divide is between rural and urban India. The internet penetration rate is 103% in cities [ because of individuals with multiple connections ] and 38% in the countryside. 

Three quarters of graduates have a mobile phone of some sort, while three-quarters of those with primary-school education do not.

WHEN INDIA implemented its first lockdown in 2020 and its schools moved over to online learning, Sharmila found herself in a quandary. She is a maid in the posh western suburbs of Mumbai; she had enrolled her son and daughter in a fee-paying school.

But her family possessed a single smartphone. So her children would either both have to skip some online classes or would have to miss them all. Happily, her employers gave her a second smartphone, at a cost of 10,000 rupees [$122]. That is more than Sharmila's monthly wage.

Most Indians lack such a benefactor. Of the country's roughly 1 billion mobile phone users, a third still use old-fashioned dumbphones, mainly for voice calls. 

And recent data suggest that they are not about to upgrade them.

All but a tiny proportion of Indian internet users get online using their phones. Yet the number of wireless broadband connections is flat.

In October 2022, the latest month for which the figures are available, the telecoms regulator counted 790 million wireless broadband connections, barely exceeding the previous peak of 789 million, which was recorded in August 2021.

[The number of subscribers is lower than this, because many people have more than one connection.]

SMARTPHONE sales are down. After growing for a decade, sales peaked at 161 million units in 2021, according to IDC, a market researcher, which reckons that last year the number fell to 148 million.

Meanwhile the average smartphone price has surged, from $163 million before the pandemic to $220 in 2022.

Prices are rising in parts because of global factors, including supply-chain bottlenecks,  Chinese lockdowns and rising component costs. But it is also because manufacturers also find it worth their while to sell ultra-cheap phones, says Navkendar Singh of IDC.

The market share of smartphones costing less than $100 dropped from 30% in 2019 to 12% last year, according to Counterpoint, another research firm. Before the pandemic some 5 million people traded up from a dumbphone to a smart one every month.

That dipped last year to about 3 million, says Shilp Jain, an analyst with Counterpoint. Mobile subscriptions are getting dearer, too. In the year to June 2022, prices rose 28%. The number of converts, from dumb to smart, is expected to fall again this year, 2023.

Stalling growth in internet use will have profound implications for millions of poor families. The government has increasingly defaulted to online solutions.

These disparities risk upending what have been very promising efforts to improve Indian governance through digitisation.

'' The evaluation of what makes it better should be from the point of view of the average Indian,'' says Apar Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights organization.

'' And the average Indian, especially in rural areas, does not have access to the internet.''

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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