'Digital India' lags behind in world internet race

A Kashmiri man looks at the social networking site Facebook Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption India's falling ranking on broadband penetration underlines the challenge for "Digital India"

India appears to be falling behind in the global race for mobile internet and broadband penetration, the latest UN figures show.

India's ranking on broadband penetration dropped to 131 in 2014 - lower by six places since the last year - according to a Unesco report covering 189 countries and titled "The State of Broadband 2015".

On mobile broadband subscriptions, India also slipped significantly as it stood at 155 in 2014 compared to 113 in 2013, far below neighbouring Sri Lanka and Nepal, which were ranked 126 and 115 respectively.

The country has also climbed down by five places to 80 among 133 developing countries, despite some progress in terms of individual use of the internet, the report says.

The findings underline the challenge that Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces in realising his government's "Digital India" project, which aims to universalise mobile and internet access across the country.

Digital divide

The 2015 report, released just ahead of the UN Sustainable Development Goals Summit on 26 September, emphasises the concerns of experts over the achievability of the "Digital India" initiative.

The project aims to reduce the "digital divide" by providing high-speed internet connectivity to the farthest corners of the country by 2019. It also speaks of "empowering" over 68% of India's population, living in rural areas.

Analysts have voiced doubts over the viability of these aims, arguing that they cannot be fulfilled without due attention to critical shortcomings in infrastructure.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption "Digital India" aims to promote e-education in over 250,000 government schools and e-governance in about 250,000 village councils via internet connections

The project envisages a 6,000km-long National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) to connect cities, towns and 150,000 postal offices by December 2016 at an estimated cost of over $18bn.

Osama Manzar, founder-director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, in an article on the Mint website laments the lack of investment pledges by telecommunication firms towards building the network.

"It is on record that not a single telecom operator or industry house has signed up to partner the NOFN programme, despite the Department of Telecommunications inviting them several times," he says.

Infrastructure deficit

The NOFN project is far behind schedule and is unlikely to be completed on time.

A particular obstacle is posed by the challenges of laying such an underground network in insurgency-affected states like Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Indian-administered Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

A lack of agreement between the central and state governments does not help, and compounding the mix are illiteracy, poverty and a shortage of skilled manpower.

The "Digital India" project aims to promote e-education in over 250,000 government schools and e-governance in about 250,000 village councils via internet connections. However, most schools in villages and towns face a severe shortage of qualified computer trainers.

According to recent government data, 36% of the 884 million people in rural areas are illiterate, and among the 64% who are literate, only 5.4% have completed high school.

And rural electrification continues to be an area of major concern.

But where is the speed?

India is a large market for mobile telephony, but it does not fare well on considerations of internet speed via mobile devices.

A recent Deloitte report said the total number of internet users in the country was 254m in September 2014, and of these, 235m users were accessing the internet through mobile devices.

The research suggests that there are 439,000 mobile network towers nationwide, but only 700 can actually support 3G or 4G data use.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Capacity and speed remains a major concern in India

Statistics show that despite having the third-largest population of internet users in the world, India stands at 52nd place in terms of internet speed. It has an average speed of 1.5 to 2 mbps, while developed Asian countries like South Korea and Japan enjoy speeds of 14.2 and 11.7 mbps respectively.

The latest UN report, therefore, only underlines the already formidable challenges faced by the "Digital India" project.

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.

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