India has built a global reputation as a major player in information technology, but a lack of Internet access among its own citizens is posing a threat to long-term growth.
One typical young Indian frustrated by the country’s poor Internet facilities is Srishti Sharma, 18, a student at the elite Lady Shri Ram college in 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 10 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.
“Almost every day I have to leave campus to do my work. It’s really irritating, you end up wasting so much time going back and forth,” the political science student said.
In many ways, Sharma is among the lucky ones as India’s 1.2 billion people scramble to reap the benefits of the country’s economic transformation.
Only 3 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 low figure comes despite an expected doubling in the number of rural users, from 12.1 million in December last year to a predicted 24 million in December this year.
Technology giant Cisco released data in June showing that global Internet usage will quadruple between last year and 2015, but that India will still trail behind emerging market rivals such as China, South Africa and Mexico in terms of per capita usage.
“The government needs to make Internet access a priority,” said San Francisco-based technology consultant Ulrik McKnight, who works with firms in India, Europe and the US. “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 that previous governments had faced opposition when they tried to bring new technology to India, with many saying that the authorities needed to focus on providing access to food and water, not phones and computers.
“The argument that basic needs trump other needs has been made again and again in India, against the introduction of color television, personal computers and payphone booths,” McKnight said.
Unlike the mobile phone, which spread quickly among all Indians, from urban executives to farm workers, the Internet has taken longer to catch on, IAMAI president Subho Ray said.
“The mobile phone was bound to succeed in India, it fulfilled a purpose since people found it difficult to get landlines set up,” he said. “But the Internet is more complex. You have to help people understand what it can do for them, they don’t automatically get it.”
Analysts say India’s absence of infrastructure — from steady electricity to an extensive landline network — has been a stumbling block to broadening Internet access.
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 programs over technological development.
A much-vaunted plan to create 20 million broadband connections by last year fell far short of its target, despite the government pegging broadband speed at a measly 256 kilobytes per second, 1/16th of the US standard of four megabytes per second.