Growing Coverage: Government’s digital initiatives yield positive results in rural areas

During the past three years, rural internet connectivity has been expanding at an un­precedented rate due to the rising af­fordability of smartphones, affordable data ta­riffs, increasing government focus on expanding digital connectivity in rural areas and rising coverage of telecom networks in these areas. Fur­ther, the chan­ging dynamics after the Covid-19 pandemic and increasing reverse migration ha­ve contributed to the growing uptake of internet services in these regions.

The most recent Economic Survey of 2022-23 highlighted this trend and stated that India has added more rural internet subscribers in the past three years (2019-21) compared to urban areas. The number of rural internet subscribers has reached 95.76 million while that of urban internet subscribers has reached 92.81 million.

According to the survey, the government’s efforts to focus on bridging the gap bet­ween rur­al and urban internet penetration have yielded positive results. The growth is attributed to dedicated digital initiatives implemented acro­ss rural areas through gover­n­ment schemes such as the Bharat­Net project, Telecom Deve­lop­ment Plan, Aspirational District Scheme, Compre­he­n­sive Te­le­com Development Plan and initiatives in areas affected by left-wing ex­tremism. Today, as the country ramps up the deployment of 5G technology, it has become crucial to enhance internet outre­ach to rural areas to enable ubiquitous availability of 5G networks.

Changing dynamics post-Covid-19

The digital landscape in rural India has been expanding rapidly post the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, the Economic Survey highlights that the significant growth in rural India was the primary shock absorber during the Covid-19 pandemic when both business and consumer demands were impacted. This is due to a significant portion of the workforce who reverse-migrated to rural areas, resulting in a surge in in­ter­net demand.

Development of digital infrastructure

Over the years, the development of digital infrastructure has played a vital role in scaling up digital adoption in rural areas by enabling the disbursement of funds into the bank accounts of beneficiaries under numerous government schemes. Further, with restricted accessibility to educational institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the digital infrastructure in government schools helped enable e-learning for students. According to the Economic Survey, the increase in online schooling for a considerable period post the Covid-19 pandemic led to a rise in internet subscriptions in rural areas and hel­p­ed mitigate the lear­ning loss significantly. It also facilitated the successful roll-out of mass vaccination in rural areas. The survey highlights that the government’s increased impetus to bri­d­ging the gap between urban and rural connectivity is reflected in the 200 per cent in­c­rease in rural internet subscriptions bet­ween 2015 and 2021 compared to 158 per cent in urban areas.

Creating digital linkages at the grassroots level

As per the Ministry of Communications, out of 644,131 villages (as per the Regis­trar General of India (RGI) as of November 2019) in the country, around 598,951 (93 per cent) villages have 4G mobile network con­nectivity while 45,180 villages do not have 4G mobile coverage. The go­vernme­nt has launched a project to provide 4G mo­bile services in uncovered villages to create digital linkages at the grassroots level. The project aims to provide 4G mo­bile services in 24,680 uncovered villages in remote and difficult areas. Bharat Sanchar Ni­gam Li­mited will be executing the project, whi­ch is expected to be completed by December 2023. Further, 6,279 villages that have 2G/3G connectivity will be up­graded to 4G under the project.

Telcos expand their rural presence

Telecom operators are stepping up their eff­orts to leverage the increasing rural in­ter­net penetration. Recently, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) roll­ed out the new format “Vi Shops” in Tier III markets across 18 states to scale up its rural presence. The telco has launched Vi Shops ac­r­oss multiple towns in Andhra Pradesh, Bi­har, Ch­h­attisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Harya­na, Jhar­kh­a­nd, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pra­desh, Ma­ha­­rashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Raj­as­than, Tamil Na­du, Telangana, Uttar Pra­desh and West Ben­gal. These shops aim to provide quick support and handholding, along with the entire bouquet of Vi prepaid products and services, to en­able an enhanced customer experience and closer engagement.

While Vi has had a strong presence in rural areas, its market share in these areas seems to be declining as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio aggressively focus on the rural markets. Recently, Airtel announced its plans to expand its 5G coverage to key rural areas by March 2024. As per Airtel, over 40 per cent of its net 4G subscribers are from rural areas, and the company aims to bridge the coverage gap bet­ween its subscribers in the rural and urban regions. Jio has also been actively seeking subscribers in rural areas.

As a result, Vi’s rural subscriber base has be­en declining over the past few years. Ac­co­r­ding to the Telecom Regulatory Autho­rity of India (TRAI), Vi’s rural market base declined fr­om 157 million in October 2020 to 136 million in Octo­ber 2021 and 121 million in October 2022. How­­­ever, Airtel’s subscriber base in ru­ral markets grew from 156 million in October 2020 to 170 million in October 2021 and 177 million in Oc­­to­ber 2022. Jio’s rural subscriber base has also witnessed similar growth, tho­ugh it slowed down in 2022. Jio had 171 million ru­ral subscri­bers in Oc­tober 2020, which increa­sed to 184 mi­ll­ion in 2021 and 185 million in October 2022.

Renewed focus on digital inclusion

Scaling up digital inclusion has become a priority for the government. In a bid to increase digital inclusion, TRAI recently announced plans to release a consultation paper focused on three critical aspects – connectivity, handsets and literacy. According to the regulator, all areas in the country need to benefit from the latest technologies such as 5G, and this can only happen through digital inclusion. While the prices of 2G, 3G and 4G handsets have decreased significantly, the prices of 5G handsets are still high, making them unaffordable for the masses, particularly in rural areas where purchasing power is lower, leading to lower uptake of 5G networks.

Further, the regulator believes that the country needs to develop its own distinguished digital models focused on resolving socio-economic issues as opposed to the models that are popular in other developed nations, which largely focus on the monetary benefits.

Rural all the way

Net, net, the government, private telcos as well as other stakeholders are betting big on the transformation of rural India to ensure ubiquitous access to next-generation technologies across the country. Ac­cording to Ashwini Vaish­naw, minister of railways, communications and electronics and information technology, the government is investing nearly $30 billion to en­sure last-mile network accessibility for 4G and 5G in villages across the country. The in­vestment is in line with the government’s aim to build a robust digital infrastructure in rural areas and create an ecosystem of village-level entrepreneurs.

Improving digital connectivity in rural areas requires specific strategies that take into ac­c­ount the different demographic compositi­on of these regions. Efforts to enhance digital access in rural areas should prioritise addressing regional and gender divides. Given the varying terrains and characteristics of villages across different states, it is important to tailor initiatives to the local context in order to promote digital participation, literacy and adoption. These measures can help rural areas take advantage of the current 5G wave.

Kuhu Singh Abbhi