If things go as per plan, Kerala could have near-universal Internet access in a little over a year’s time. Last week’s nod by the State Cabinet for the Kerala Fibre Optic Network project clears the path for a Kerala-wide optical fibre network by December 2020. At ₹1,548 crore, it is, without doubt, an ambitious project. But what makes it commendable is its recognition that Internet access is a basic human right. No other Indian State has recognised Internet access in this manner till now. This is also in sync with what the UN has been articulating in recent years, based on the Internet’s role in enabling freedom of speech and reducing inequality, among other things. And so, embedded in this plan to touch every household in Kerala is a provision to deliver free Internet access to over two million BPL families. The idea is to charge affordable rates for other families. The network, to be set up by the Kerala State Electricity Board Ltd. and the Kerala State IT Infrastructure Ltd., will also connect 30,000 government offices and educational institutions. When complete, Kerala, a State that already tops in human development indicators in the country, will be ready for a steep digital evolution.
Kerala’s plan for Internet roll-out, therefore, is also worthy of emulation by other States, given that Internet have-nots still exist in the millions. There is no doubt that India has made huge leaps in providing Internet access to its people in recent years. To be sure, a good part of the growth till now can be attributed to cheap data plans, triggered in no small measure by the advent of Reliance Jio. According to a recent study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and Nielsen, the country has 451 million active Internet users. But this number masks huge access gaps. Internet penetration is significantly higher in urban areas than it is in rural areas; it is also significantly higher for men than it is for women. The best-performing State, Delhi-NCR, has an Internet penetration of 69%. The second-best is Kerala, with just 54%. Global technology companies have in recent years eyed the huge population of Internet have-nots as an opportunity. Some, like Facebook, even came up with an idea of free access to a list of chosen sites, a severely skewed version of the Internet which endangered its basic values. While such ideas were thankfully rejected by the government, the gaps are there nonetheless. There is no doubt that governments need to play an interventionist role in plugging this gap. Kerala could set a healthy example.