Indian consumers may soon enjoy free public WiFi nationwide – but at what cost?

Indian consumers may soon enjoy free public WiFi nationwide – but at what cost? Source: Shutterstock

India’s internet connectivity doubled in just 4 years

  • India, second only to China, has more than half a billion internet subscribers
  • That makes the nation one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for digital consumers
  • Lower-income states are showing the fastest growth in internet infrastructures
  • India could add as many as 350 million smartphones by 2023

Internet service was first made available to the public in India on August 15, 1995. Some 25 years later, the number of internet connections in the country has breached 749 million users, as of August this year. Most of the connections are in urban areas and availed through wireless devices like mobile phones and dongles.

Even by 2016, India represented the world’s second-largest internet market, with ‘only’ 340 million internet connections hooked up, indicating the acceleration of India’s digital transformation (DX) launched by Narendra Modi’s government in 2015. It consists of narrowband (50.8 million) and broadband (698.2 million) together, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

India had breached 500 million connections in September 2018, and from there the country has added more than 8.6 million new connections on average each month. 

As for market share, it shows that 53% of these connections were split between Reliance Jio, Airtel, and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited.

Connected doesn’t mean access

While the total number of internet connections has risen rapidly, it doesn’t mean that the same number of people actually have access to the internet. When India breached that milestone in 2018, for instance, the subscriber base close to half the number of connections. There were about 34 internet subscribers per 100 people in India in 2017, which grew by 20 percentage points in just two years.

By the end of 2019, there were about 54 internet subscribers per 100 people. It is equally important to note that India is already the world’s second-largest smartphone market, behind China, with more than 400 million users.

According to McKinsey, Indian mobile data users consume 8.3GB of data each month on average, compared with 5.5GB for mobile users in China and somewhere in the range of 8.0 to 8.5GB in South Korea, an advanced digital economy. Indians have 1.2 billion mobile phone subscriptions and downloaded more than 12 billion apps in 2018. 

“Our analysis of 17 mature and emerging economies finds India is digitizing faster than any other country in the study, save Indonesia — and there is plenty of room to grow: just over 40% of the populace has an internet subscription.”

With both private and public-sector action promoting digital usage, India’s states have started bridging the digital divide. Lower-income states are showing the fastest growth in internet infrastructures, such as base tower stations and the penetration of internet services to new customers. 

While low- and moderate-income states as a group accounted for 43% of all base tower stations in India in 2013, they accounted for 52% of the incremental towers installed between 2013 and 2017, McKinsey report stated. Low-income states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand were among the five fastest-growing states in internet penetration between 2014 and 2018.

“Uttar Pradesh alone added more than 36 million internet subscribers in that period. Ordinary Indians in many parts of the country—including small towns and rural areas— can read the news online, order food delivery via a phone app, video chat with a friend (Indians log 50 million video-calling minutes a day on WhatsApp), shop at a virtual retailer, send money to a family member through their phone, or watch a movie streamed to a handheld device,” the report stated.

That means that for the tech industry, India is the world’s oyster.