Digital poverty and exclusion hide in plain sight. In an era of hyper-connectivity, millions are left in the shadows, even in the wealthiest countries. Data from the US shows that a quarter of America’s rural population, a staggering 14.5 million people, still don’t have access to broadband. In a world where billions are connected, the stark reality of this absence looms large, leaving more than 3 billion people on the margins of the digital age. As life moves online, it only exacerbates existing inequalities, limiting access to education, healthcare, job opportunities and essential services.
This takes us to Kerala in south India, home to about 34 million people. There, the communist-led state government is launching something called the Kerala Fibre Optical Network (KFON) – and it’s a major milestone. (It is worth noting the irony that the communist government, which has a history of opposing the introduction of computers, is now at the forefront of this digital initiative.) In 2016, the state recognised the internet as a basic citizen’s right, joining other polities like Finland, Costa Rica and France. Next on the agenda: making this new right mean something.
Despite facing various setbacks – such as the pandemic and a corruption allegation that led to the arrest of the senior bureaucrat who was previously in charge of KFON (he denies the allegation) – the project has finally been launched. It’s a fibre-optic broadband network project, aiming to provide affordable and reliable internet connectivity to every household, government institution and business entity in the state.
Marred by delays, the project is taking a cautious approach, starting with about 14,000 relatively poor households throughout the state that will be getting internet connectivity this month. The extensive KFON network has reached even the most remote areas, like tribal hamlets in faraway regions in Wayanad. The project aims to eventually provide free internet connections to 2 million economically disadvantaged households in the state – this is expected in the next 12 to 18 months. The other 6 million or so households Kerala will have the option of choosing from a range of affordable data packages, starting from just under 300 rupees (£2.86) a month for a 20 Mbps connection. (For context, rural farm workers in Kerala make about 727 rupees a day.)
All this – along with installing the infrastructure in schools and government buildings – is expected to have a multiplier effect within society, with significant benefits for healthcare, education, skill development and business opportunities, to name just a few. Alongside the expansion of the infrastructure, the government has initiated digital literacy campaigns at the grassroots level, working with local bodies to ensure that individuals from the marginalised communities have the skills necessary to use the internet; the aim is to empower every citizen with the ability to leverage the benefits of digital connectivity in their daily lives.
In several low- and middle-income country settings, where service delivery is affected by infrastructure bottlenecks and gaps in human resources, digital interventions like this can offer a great leap forward for equity in access. For instance, the eSanjeevani project, a free telemedicine service initiated by the government of India, has achieved a remarkable milestone of 125m tele-consultations in just over three years of operation. It is currently the world’s largest government-owned telemedicine platform, serving even the most remote regions of the country. As the Economist recently observed, India is touting its digital infrastructure on the global stage, hoping to lead the way for other countries.
The pandemic years saw how the digital divide could amplify inequities. Current discussions within the G20 (India currently has the presidency) on digital public infrastructure (DPI) – which is about counterbalancing the power of a few tech corporations – would be even more relevant in societies where internet access is near universal. As we reflect on the shortcomings of the attempts by tech giants like Facebook to connect the unconnected, perhaps in the next year or so, Kerala’s KFON project will show the world how political will and innovative thinking can transform the lives of millions.
Oommen C Kurian
Published: 2023-06-19 16:31:59