Mobile internet awareness and digital skills are intrinsically linked

Many Indians still face a number of barriers to owning and using mobile phones, including cost, network quality and coverage.

Written by Alasdair Grant | Published:May 17, 2016 6:30 pm
ADHD Many Indians still face a number of barriers to owning and using mobile phones, including cost, network quality and coverage.

Mobile has the power to transform society in India. It is a key component to everyday life, as amplified by the government’s Digital India campaign, launched in July 2015.

However, while there will be 690 million smartphones in India by 2020, the GSMA estimates that there will be far fewer active data subscribers. Currently, only 412 million people in India, 31.2 per cent of the population, subscribe to the internet via their mobile phone.

This gap represents an opportunity to educate millions of Indian citizens on how they can use their mobile phones to improve education, employment opportunities and access to financial services and healthcare information. But in order for everyone to fully realise the benefits of the mobile internet and be part of the digital revolution, the barrier of digital literacy needs to be addressed immediately.

Mobile internet awareness and digital skills are intrinsically linked. When citizens of a country have the necessary skills and understanding to leverage digital technologies they can achieve meaningful social, cultural and economic outcomes.

The potential of nationwide digital literacy is so profound that the Indian government launched the National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM), as an integral part of the Digital India campaign, to help combat the digital skills gap in India. The NDLM is set to provide ICT training to 1 million people, in its first phase, and provide critical digital skills training to at least one person in each household by 2020.

In order to achieve this, there needs to be a shift in the Indian population’s understanding of, and approach to, mobile technology. If Indian citizens do not understand the fundamental benefits the mobile internet can provide, whether it be searching for jobs or health information, or just watching a music video, they will not be motivated to learn how to use it.

Acknowledging challenges

Many Indians still face a number of barriers to owning and using mobile phones, including cost, network quality and coverage.

Additionally, many people fear having their mobile phones stolen, being harassed by strangers or simply lack the technical literacy and confidence to use them to their full capacity. Social norms and the disparities between men and women in education and income often mean that women experience these barriers more acutely than men.

However, after meeting with a number of people across India, listening to experiences and the challenges they face every day only serves to highlight the obstacles that keep citizens from the advantages of mobile internet.

One great example is Manoj, a 22-year-old who owns a phone but currently only uses it for calls and texts with family. The wider benefits of the mobile internet are unknown to him. Manoj is an entrepreneur working to support his family. He works hard and long hours to provide his young daughter with an education and means of bettering herself. To this end, he runs two businesses; a shop selling women’s’ garments, and troubleshoots his customers’ cable network issues and he also delivers newspapers.

Manoj is aware of the benefits of connectivity. He’s calculated that he earns an additional Rs 20 from cable customer voice calls that he receives. Yet his business and family could benefit even further from the internet, if he were only aware of its potential. These entrenched barriers to advancement are symptomatic of the wider Indian issue surrounding digital skills.

There are logistical efficiencies to be realised by Manoj. For instance, every other day he spends two hours cycling around the markets at lunchtime, purchasing new stock for his shop. This activity could be conducted over a mobile handset, saving him both time and money. In turn, Manoj could then reinvest in his family and businesses, helping him in his goal to send his daughter to school.

Access to opportunities

The digital skills gap needs to be tackled, urgently, for a number of important socio-economic reasons. Mobile phones enhance lives and enable Indian citizens to feel more autonomous and connected. These devices also enable access to education, employment opportunities, financial services and healthcare information.

As the case of Manoj proves, the solution doesn’t lie in simply increasing mobile phone ownership; it lies with collaboration between governments, mobile operators and third parties to educate the population.

Only when every citizen is empowered to use the mobile internet in ways that directly benefit their own lives, and the lives of their communities, can the whole of India participate equitably in the thriving global knowledge economy.

The enormous potential digital inclusivity offers means that bold steps need to be taken. While measures taken on by the government are certainly a step in the right direction, the mobile industry, policy makers and other key stakeholders need to work together, ensuring everyone can realise the benefits of mobile services.

To this end, together with Idea Cellular, Telenor, the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), 2CV Research Ltd and Point of View, the GSMA is taking positive actions to reduce the digital skills barrier in India through the launch of the Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT). The toolkit has been developed for MNOs, NGOs, development organisations and governments who want to provide training to improve people’s basic knowledge and understanding of how the mobile internet can benefit them directly.

The toolkit provides an introduction to using the mobile internet on an entry level smartphone through three services: WhatsApp, YouTube and Google, with important information about safety and cost included as well.

Due to the potential impact, clear market need and government buy-in, the GSMA and its partners are piloting the toolkit in Maharashtra, ensuring communities are equipped with the skills necessary to reap the benefits of a digital economy.

Alasdair Grant is the Head of Asia for GSMA. He has more than 20 years’ experience in the communications sector, for the past 15 years operating his own telecommunications strategy consultancy and holding Hong-Kong based “head of Asia” corporate development and public policy roles for major global operators. He is an experienced reform advocate and regulatory expert, and is the founding editor of Australian Telecommunications Regulation, the leading text in its field. Alasdair has degrees in Law and Literature from the University of Sydney.

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