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India has the world’s second-largest online market, yet half its population – nearly 700 million people – are unconnected.

That may soon change as Indian internet service provider, AirJaldi, is broadening access through an innovative project with global tech giant Microsoft.

An affordable network

Microsoft’s Airband Initiative aims to bring fast and reliable internet connections to some of the world’s most poorly served areas. The partnership with AirJaldi in India will provide access to vital services such as healthcare, as well as banking and economic development.

AirJaldi is developing what it describes as “an affordable network” in rural and semi-urban areas across India, some of which have no access to power or mobile connectivity. It has so far installed 30,000 square kilometres of wireless coverage, reaching 1,500 villages.

Fixing the digital divide could have huge implications for the life chances of India’s poor. Tasks that might ordinarily mean an expensive and time-consuming trip to the city, such as banking, can be done online, argues AirJaldi. Access to education, healthcare and government services also become democratized through digitalization.

“Without connectivity, you cannot talk about improving people’s livelihoods, well-being, or voice,” Michael Ginguld, one of AirJaldi’s co-founders, told Microsoft Stories India.

Closing the digital divide

Internet access is linked to improved economic outcomes and can help bring development, education and jobs to communities, a recent World Economic Forum report concluded.

The importance of a reliable, low-cost internet connection proved particularly vital when the COVID-19 pandemic caused nationwide lockdowns and prevented in-school education for many children. The health crisis exposed a digital divide between well-connected children in cities such as Mumbai and those in rural areas. City children were able to join online classes, while those in remote villages were prevented from doing so by inadequate internet access.

The need for a solution becomes more acute as India’s digitalization accelerates – in 2019 the country was ranked just behind China in terms of having the world’s largest internet populations. The faster the transformation, the deeper the digital divide becomes for the large swathes of the country that remain offline.

AirJaldi isn’t alone in trying to bridge the chasm. Digital India, launched in 2015 by the government, is an umbrella programme working to improve internet connectivity and is committed to doubling the size of the country’s online economy.

Connecting the world

India is not the only nation to suffer a yawning gap between the digital haves and have-nots – half of the planet’s population currently lacks any form of internet connection. Those without tend to be in already-disadvantaged, isolated rural communities.

Two-thirds of school-age children worldwide cannot access the internet at home, according to UNICEF figures. In light of the pandemic and the United Nation’s sustainable development goals for education, this is a figure which needs to be addressed urgently.

This article was first published at World Economic Forum.


Also read: This Maharashtra village has not had a sarpanch for 15 years for fear of death. Until now


 

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