Context, Background and Problem
Chapter 1

Internet in India

In April 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Agency at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign released the first graphical internet browser, Mosaic. This browser and its successor, Netscape, made technical knowledge unnecessary for internet access, drawing ordinary citizens onto the Web and changing forever the way it is used and how people live.

The centrality of the internet in social, economic and political activity became quickly evident.

But so did the consequent marginality of those without access to the internet, or with only limited access. Within two years, the US’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) had come out with a report called Falling through the net: A survey of the ‘have-nots’ in rural and urban America (US Department of Commerce and NTIA, 1995). The report discussed the digital divide and what lack of access to the internet would mean and noted: ‘While a standard telephone line can be an individual’s pathway to the riches of the Information Age, a personal computer and modem are rapidly becoming the keys to the vault.’

The very same year, 1995, India got access to the internet. While initially it remained the preserve of educational and technical institutions, in August, just in time for the Independence Day celebrations, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, then still a public sector unit, inaugurated India’s first public internet service. The Gateway Internet Access Service provided individual subscribers dial-up access speeds up to 9.6 kbps at Rs 5,000 for 250 hours to be used over a year.

From 10,000 internet users in 1995 to 254.4 million by September 2014 (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, [TRAI]), India has witnessed a telecom revolution, enabled largely by leapfrogging wireless technologies, mobile telephony and falling prices of smartphones and mobile data access. Today the internet is accessible for as little as Rs 100 for 300 MB of data to be used over a month.

India stands third in the ranking of countries by total number of internet users. Despite the impressive absolute numbers however, internet penetration in India is at 15.1% (compared to 96.5% in Iceland, 89.8% in the UK, 46% in China and 29.9% in Bhutan) (ITU and UNESCO, 2014, p 102).

India is at the bottom of most indices when compared to other BRICS countries.

Table 1.1 Internet user  penetration (2013)

Source: ITU 2014


Table 1.2: Subscriptions per 100 population (2013)

Source: Broadband for All: The State of Broadband 2014. Broadband Commission

The fine print on internet access in India (Table 1.3) presents an even bleaker picture: TRAI data claims that 178.67 million of India’s internet users are narrowband subscribers, and only 75.73 million are on broadband (ie speeds higher than 512 kbps and now recognised in India as the basic for a useful internet connection). Seen thus, effective internet penetration in India is reduced to 6.19 per 100. And if one considers only the 18.70 million wireline subscribers (TRAI has itself stated that only wireline subscribers could be considered to have ‘desired bandwidth speeds’), less than 2 per 100 are using desired bandwidth speeds (using 2011 census figures for population).

The government’s big push towards Digital India and e-governance must be placed in the context of these dismal figures for access.

Table 1.3: Internet subscribers in India at a glance (2014)

Source: TRAI, September 2014

The Digital India programme launched in 2014 centres around a) digital infrastructure as a core utility to every citizen, b) online and mobile availability of governance and services, and c) digital empowerment of citizens, with universal digital literacy, and digital platforms for participative governance.

With government services increasingly being made available online, lack of access to the internet hampers citizens’ access to government and its services. To take just one example from the city of Pune, government recently mandated that applications to primary schools under the 25% reservation for economically weaker sections under the Right to Education Act could only be made online. The first year the online application process was introduced in the city, the majority of parents had no clue how to go about it and the quota was undersubscribed. Applications picked up the following year when the government set up helpdesks at schools to demystify the online process for parents and help them submit their applications.

Equality of access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) not only facilitates political participation but is critical for economic inclusion, education and community involvement as well as entertainment and personal interaction. Digital equality is thus a significant public policy issue.

Failure to address the disparities in access will result in the traditional elites also remaining the ‘broadband elites’, while the marginalised millions are relegated to what sociologist and digital media theorist Manuel Castells calls ‘the black holes of informational capitalism’ (Castells, 1998, p 162).


The digital divide was originally defined in terms of access to the internet – the gap between the technology haves and have-nots, those with access to computers/mobile devices and the internet, and those without. In an information society, digital access, the possession of digital literacy/skills, and the ability to use them to enhance income, education and social status, underpin social participation and inclusion.

The digital divide is tied to social inequalities. It taps into existing social and economic cleavages. Those who are already marginalised – in terms of income, education, gender, age or ethnic status – will have fewer opportunities to access and use computers and the internet (Warschauer, 2003).

This would mean that the new technology could end up exacerbating inequality rather than ameliorating it (DiMaggio and Hargittai, 2001). The underclass of info-poor ‘may become further marginalised in societies where basic computer skills are becoming essential for economic success and personal advancement, entry to good career and educational opportunities, full access to social networks, and opportunities for civic engagement’ (Norris, 2001, p 68).

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan was amongst the first to flag the problem at the international level: ‘People lack many things: jobs, shelter, food, healthcare and drinkable water. Today, being cut off from basic telecommunications services is a hardship almost as acute as these other deprivations, and may indeed reduce the chances of finding remedies to them,’ (Quoted in Norris, 2001, p 40).

As internet penetration grows, the digital divide is being seen not as a question of access alone, but also the inequality between people with access. Absolute exclusion of access to digital media remains important (van Dijk, 2012) but the emphasis is shifting to the relative differences between people who already have access in a certain way or to a particular extent.

‘As soon as one source of technological inequality seems to be diminishing, another one emerges: differential access to high-speed broadband service,’ (Castells, 2001, p 256). Even while the ‘huddled masses’ finally get access to basic internet services, ‘the global elites will have escaped into a higher circle of cyberspace’.

This is what Hargittai has called the second digital divide.

Addressing the second digital divide necessitates a shift in focus from access to user capability. As the number of users in a country increases, access spills over from the most privileged population groups, extending to individuals who are privileged with respect to some parameters but disadvantaged with respect to others (DiMaggio and Hargittai, 2001).

As internet diffusion increases in India, quality of access and the ability to make full use of the internet become important.

A more thorough understanding of digital inequality therefore requires us to place internet access in a broader context than just access to the technological capital that enables connectivity.

Other variables include the skill that people bring to their use of the technology; the social support internet users can draw on; the purposes for which people use the technology; and the extent of autonomy that people exercise in their use of the web (DiMaggio and Hargittai, 2001).

Efforts at ameliorating this divide or inequality have been termed digital inclusion.


There is a paucity of academic and public policy work in the area of digital inclusion in India. It was only in 2014 that the TRAI called for discussions on the new broadband policy where it included a separate chapter on demand-side issues in adoption of broadband. The government’s focus all along has been on ensuring technological or supply-side access and that too primarily in the area of telephony. The Universal Services Obligation Fund did include rural wireless broadband access as one of its schemes in 2009, and in 2014 an agreement was signed to fund gram panchayat connectivity through the national optical fibre network. And the Digital India initiative, which brings together all the union government initiatives in the digital domain, includes a few provisions that address digital inclusion. But the focus remains on connecting rural India.

The paucity of research on digital inclusion in India could be partly attributed to the belief, until recently, that the digital divide is less urgent than the traditional axes of inequality, that in a developing country, ICT might be less essential for the poor than say toilets or healthcare1.

There’s also an unquestioning faith in IT and its universal benefits in India. The ‘normalisation thesis’ (Norris, 2001) appears to prevail, supporting the assumption that competition in the marketplace and falling costs of hardware/services will correct all disparities, without much need for government intervention, or provisioning for equal opportunities in access. The social profile of the online community is expected to broaden over time, just as the audience for television or the telephone did.

But the history of technology diffusion puts a damper on this view: Technological innovations from gunpowder to the telegraph to airplanes have been first adopted by higher socioeconomic groups. Education, literacy and social status facilitate access to the financial and informational resources required to adapt flexibly to innovative technologies. ‘The conditions under which innovations are implemented determine, in part, their social consequences…Innovations in highly stratified societies will usually reinforce existing socioeconomic disparities,’ (Norris, 2001, p 71).

As Castells notes, ‘Diffusing the internet or putting more computers in schools does not in itself amount to much social change. It depends where, by whom, for whom, and for what communication and information technologies are used,’ (Castells, 2005, p 6).

Digital inclusion then calls for Digital Empowerment, Digital Opportunity, Digital Equity, and Digital Excellence. ‘People may start as very basic users who simply need access to resources at a community technology centre or a library. Digital Empowerment refers to the ability to use the wealth of resources in computing and the internet to learn, communicate, innovate, and enhance wealth to move from being a digital novice to a digital professional or innovator. An effective Digital Inclusion strategy provides a path to full participation in a digital society,’ (Karen Archer Perry in Wynne, Perry and Cooper, 2009).


As early as 2000 the NTIA in the US was preparing separate reports for new categories of ‘have-nots’ – based on race, income, education, age, and disability status. Twenty years after the internet was introduced in India, there are few studies on the contours of the digital divide in the country, or how the knowledge gap is widening for those with poor access or inadequate ICT skills. We have few data on the groups that are being left in the ‘black holes’ of the information society, or of their aspirations to escape them. The academic and policy research that does exist is mostly on e-governance, individual initiatives towards digital inclusion, and the problems of rural connectivity. TRAI data point to the gulf between internet and telephone use, but give no sense of the barriers to internet access experienced by those who are ‘offline and falling behind’ (McKinsey & Company, 2014). The absence of data on the impact of the digital divide on marginalised communities in urban India is particularly marked.

This research tries to fill some of the gaps. The study probes the extent to which economically and socially marginalised populations in a burgeoning Indian metropolis have been able to get online, the barriers to digital inclusion that they experience in the resource-poor areas they inhabit, the uses to which they are able to put the internet, and their aspiration to go online.

The study defines ‘access’ in social as well as technological terms. As internet technologies penetrate further into society, the pressing question is not only how many and who can log on from home, work, or public access centres, but also how difficult it is for them to get online and what they are able to do when they go online.

Pune and its contiguous industrial areas offer a fertile urban setting to understand internet inequality. Pune has grown rapidly over the last two decades to become the eighth largest urban agglomeration in India. The city has seen a high level of in-migration, but 40% of its burgeoning population – less in the neighbouring industrial township of Pimpri-Chinchwad – lives in multidimensional poverty in informal settlements or slums. By 2015, Pune ranked second only to Bengaluru in software exports from India; state-of-the-art software parks and IT enclaves now dot its landscape, and the city plays host to a large young IT workforce. An increasing number of government services that affect all citizens, including the poor – from caste certificates to applications for driving licenses – require online applications. But this is the first study to document barriers to internet access and use in an ‘IT city’ where internet access, according to one study, is reported to have grown at 34% between 2013-14 (‘Internet in India 2014’, IAMAI-IMRB, 2014) to reach 3.6 million users in Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad (suggestive of a penetration rate above 50%).

The specific objectives of the study are:

  1. To understand inequality in internet access in low-income settlements of Pune (areas of the city falling under the Pune Municipal Corporation and the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation);
  2. To understand how socioeconomic factors – wealth, education, language, religion, caste, gender, age, occupation and marital status – affect or do not affect internet access for people in these settlements;
  3. To understand how infrastructural factors – hardware/device, connectivity/data services, and public access points – shape internet access for people residing in these settlements;
  4. To study the awareness and attitudes of inhabitants of low-income urban settlements towards the internet;
  5. To understand patterns of internet use among people in these settlements, and how they are introduced to and explore the internet;
  6. To explore the quality of access available to them; and
  7. To understand the enablers of and barriers to internet access among people in these settlements, and their aspirations to go online.

The need for such a study is overdue. The government is making ambitious plans for Smart Cities, e-governance and digital delivery of services to citizens. Without research inputs feeding into policy at this stage, efforts to address digital inequality might be inappropriate to the needs, or too little and too late.

Also, till such time that both the extent of the problem and the opportunities to address it are known, it will be difficult to convince those tasked with policy prescriptions why it should not be a case of food, income and housing first, and digital inclusion later. We should not have to wait for another study years later to suggest that the digital divide will exacerbate inequality. The objective of the research, therefore, is not merely to understand internet inequality and the use to which those with some access to the internet put it, but also to see what hopes and aspirations they have from the use of this technology and to examine the contours of what Warschauer (2003, p 26) has called the ‘social embeddedness of technology’.

The next chapter provides the research methodology used to address these objectives.


(1) This view was also expressed by some elected representatives and bureaucrats in the city in the course of this research.