Great lockdown: Online classes, remote working widen India’s digital divide

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the speed and connectivity issues of residential broadband connections.

Anita James, 45, regional manager of a state-run insurance firm, is a worried person these days. Her employer expects her to work from home in Kochi and has granted access to its customer interface. So far, she is unable to deliver the tasks despite having a broadband connection at home. Now she is worried about the workload awaiting her when the office reopens after the Covid-19 lockdown.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the new coronavirus disease, a large number of domestic and multinational companies asked their essential staff to work from home. Of India’s 500 million strong workforce, only 50 million are in the formal sector. If 30% of the formal sector workers including the three million in technology industry work remotely, the number will touch 15 million. According to news reports, Indian technology companies have been on a laptop leasing spree from March first week. All technology firms do not offer 100% work from home option. They prefer keeping at least 20-30% of their staff in offices. Due to the complete lockdown, they are now forced to offer work from home option to all employees.

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When the lockdown was announced, several experts said “work from home” will be the new normal for millions of India’s technology and financial services workers. But when a large number of people were forced to work from home, India’s internet infrastructure started giving way. Most IT sector employees face internet speed and connectivity issues at home. In the first week of the lockdown, companies were trying to resolve these issues. Many IT firms managed to solve these issues by using technology in the form of dongles that offer faster connectivity. But others depend on the employee’s personal internet facilities. Issues of internet speed and reliable power supply continue to disrupt services. This is true for firms in service sector – government, insurance, teaching, training, transportation, logistics, hospitality and tourism.

The United Nations’ Human Development Report 2019 stated that access to basic and advanced technology has become essential for human development. Access to technology and the skill to handle it will define the future course of human development, it said. The report reveals the disparities in access to technology. In 2001, only 8% of the world population had internet connection and 0.84% had broadband subscription. The numbers rose to 46% and 14% in 2017. A glaring disparity was visible in the access to basic and advanced components of digital technology between different income groups. For example, mobile subscription per 100 people in the high-income group (131) is almost double that of low-income group (67). The difference is more pronounced in the case of broadband subscriptions – the number for high income group had 28.3 broadband subscription per 100 people while the same for low income groups was 0.8%. Within these different income groups, there are disparities between different regions, socio-economic groups and gender.

The numbers for India ably demonstrate the differences – while about 95% of general category households in India have mobile phones, only 78% of ST households have them. Similarly, while 17% of general category households has computers, only 3% of ST and 5% of SC households have them.

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According to 75th round of NSSO survey, there is a glaring disparity between rural and urban India and also between different states when it comes to owning computers and internet facility. When only 4.4% of rural households have a computer, 23.4% of urban Indian households have them. Around 42% of urban households have internet facility, but only 15% of rural households have it. Overall, only 11% of Indian households have computers and 24% have internet facility. Indian states reflect another level of disparity, with a third of Delhi (33%) and a fourth in Kerala (24%) households having access to computer; but the numbers are 5% for Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Similarly, every second household in Delhi (56%), Himachal Pradesh (52%) and Kerala (52%) has access to internet, whereas only less than a fifth of the households in Andhra Pradesh (17%), Bihar (15%), Karnataka (18%) has it. Gender disparity is another issue with more men having digital skills (25%) and access to internet (20%) compared to 15% and 12% of women.

In a global speed test conducted by internet testing and analysis company Ookla in March, India was ranked at 130 on average mobile internet speeds among 141 countries and 71 in fixed broadband speeds among 176 countries. The study shows that during Covid-19 lockdown period, the download speed in India declined to below 30mbps. The latency (time between the simulation and response) of the broadband during the period remained the same, while that of mobile internet rose marginally.

Another major concern is that when the political leadership declares lockdown and asks people to work and study remotely, will it widen the already existing digital divide. As data suggest, only a small privileged segment has access to technology and the skills to use it. A person’s gender, social location and place of residence decide whether the person can opt for online classroom or remote working.

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A recent study revealed that around 86% of India’s school students are unable to access any form of online classes. Most of them belong to deprived classes. For some those who have computers and internet connection at home, working parents are using those facilities. Even if classes are offered online, only a few in urban areas have access., a technology platform supporting students with scholarship-related assistance and mentoring solutions, conducted a survey of school students across the country recently and found that children from economically weaker sections may be completely excluded from education if lockdown continues for another two months.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed issues such as the speed and connectivity issues of residential broadband connections and the data speed of smartphones. People in metro cities and states with better connectivity will perform better compared to their peers from other areas. In the post-Covid world, remote working and online classes will definitely be the new normal. To equip the citizens with technology and skills, India will need to invest heavily in physical and social infrastructure. Otherwise, technology related deprivation will reduce the nation’s ability to break the vicious cycle of underdevelopment.