India still hungry for internet access

Despite a booming Information Technology industry, large percentages of India’s population still battle to get a regular, readily available internet connection. This lack of penetration threatens to hamper further development in the region.

Only three percent of all Indians living in rural areas will be active Internet users by the end of this year, according to forecasts by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). The same percentage of the entire population actually own PCs.

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The low figures come despite an expected doubling in the number of rural internet users, from 12.1 million in December 2010 to 24 million in December 2011.

The country also lags behind in mobile internet connectivity despite its mobile networks having made substantial leaps in recent years, particularly in the introduction of 3G services.

Such issues saw India placed in the “extreme risk” category in a recent Digital Inclusion Index compiled by risk analysis firm Maplecroft. India was the only BRICS country placed in this category.

Among the reasons cited for such poor levels of connectivity are the absences of steady electricity and an extensive landline network.

Issues of connectivity are not restricted to rural areas. Even university students in some of the country’s largest cities battle to find viable connections on their campuses.

One such student is Srishti Sharma, 18, a student at the elite Lady Shri Ram college in the capital New Delhi.

“There are times when you desperately need to do some research using the net, and the only place you can go to is the library which is packed since there are only about ten computers there,” she said.

Instead Sharma lugs her laptop out of the college grounds to Internet cafes and pays for access to a Wi-Fi connection.

Recent research by technology giant Cisco suggests that even with internet usage expected to quadruple by 2015, India will still lag behind competitive economies like South Africa, Mexico and China in terms of per capita usage.

Ulrik McKnight, a San Francisco based technology consultant who works with firms in India, believes that the Indian government needs to make internet access a priority.

“Imagine the impact it could have on education. It’s much cheaper to post course material online and give aspiring students a net connection than build colleges in every village,” he said.

India’s left-leaning Congress government derives much of its support from the poor, and for years its priorities have reflected the concerns of its voter base, with a focus on rural welfare programmes over technological development.

This attitude does, however, appear to be changing. The country has ambitious plans to raise the number of broadband connections from about 12 million today to 75-million by 2012 and 160-million by 2014.

A similar plan to create 20 million broadband connections by 2010 fell far short of its target, despite the government pegging broadband speed at a measly 256 kilobytes per second, a fraction of the US standard of 4.0 megabytes per second.

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