At the intersection of a residential street in Thiruvananthapuram, two workers are busy surveying utility poles where fibre optic cables are to be installed. The buzz of activity has attracted four children who gather around. Told that it’s for “internet lines” , the kids nod knowingly. One of them then starts telling the others about a video on World War II that his history teacher had shown in class. There are 12,500 schools in Kerala — which has a literacy rate of 93.9% — and all of them are reported to have internet connection and computer labs.
While Kerala achieved this digital revolution in classrooms in the past decade, the state now has its eyes set on another ambitious target — bringing high speed internet to every household, including its 20 lakh Below Poverty Line (BPL) families who would get the service for free. In 2017, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government had declared internet as a basic human right and in October this year, the state cabinet approved the Kerala Fibre Optic Network (KFON) project.
A month on, work on finishing the mammoth task within its deadline of December 2020 has gathered pace. To provide high-speed internet to one crore households, 30 lakh commercial and industrial establishments, 30,000 government offices and schools, a 28,000km-long “internet highway” — a network of fibre optic cables — which will snake through the state is being developed. The choice of aerial cables providing broadband connectivity is an obvious one for the advantages of speed it offers over underground networks. It’s much faster to install fibre optic cables by attaching them to poles than it is to dig to bury them underground.
The Rs 1,548 crore-project is being funded by Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) which powers major infrastructure projects. Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) and Kerala State IT Infrastructure Ltd (KSITIL) have also been roped in. A consortium of companies led by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) has won the tender for development of the fibre cable network. Cables are being imported from the US and quality testing is underway in Chennai.
Kerala IT secretary M Sivasankar, the man behind the idea, told TOI that the objective of the project was not to simply ensure an internet connection, but high-speed connectivity. “We wanted to bridge the digital divide by providing access to all.” Currently, Kerala’s internet penetration rate stands at 54%, second to Delhi (69%), according to a recent report of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).
The state’s dream of universal internet access will be aided by the robust telecom and power infrastructure that is already in place as well as high e-literacy among its population. “More than a decade ago, we successfully carried out e-literacy drives which were aimed at making at least one person in a household computer-literate. Now high-speed internet access will help us improve e-governance services,” said Sivasankar.
Kerala’s announcement of internet as a basic right has also caught international attention. Last week, a study by the University of Birmingham published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, cited Kerala’s example to argue for recognition of internet as a basic human right, noting that exercising free speech and obtaining information is now dependent on having access to internet. In 2016, the United Nations had declared internet access a human right.
A key part of recognizing internet as a basic right means Kerala will also extend digital access for free to 20 lakh BPL families in the state. Director of KSITIL C Jayasankar said that free connectivity to BPL families would be reviewed periodically. There would be a cap on free data that is available per month, he said.
Some experts are, however, sceptical whether the benefit of internet access would trickle down to BPL families. “For majority of BPL families who won’t be able to afford phones that support high-definition content, this free internet would be of no effective use,” said educational software (IT) expert Rajesh Pillai.
Economist Mary George added that the state was yet to get back on its feet from the devastating impact of floods in 2018. “Instead of focusing on internet connectivity, the state government should first improve lives of flood victims.”
But IT secretary Sivasankar maintained that internet connectivity would improve access to education and opportunities for the youth while adding that there was “hardly a household in Kerala where none of the members had a smartphone.”
Other experts also said that upward mobility in a digital world requires access to internet. Anoop P Ambika, cyber expert and former secretary, Group of Technology Companies (GTech) in Kerala, believes that being digitally connected would boost access to education while opening up opportunities for entrepreneurship and jobs for all sections of society.
World Bank estimates also suggest so. According to it, only about 35% of the population in developing countries has access to the internet (versus about 80% in advanced economies). Raising internet penetration to 75% of the population in all developing countries would add as much as US$2 trillion to their collective gross domestic product (GDP) and create more than 140 million jobs around the world.