Closing the gapJust having access to the internet is not enough to overcome the digital divide
Today, much like food, shelter and clothing, the internet is a basic and essential need. Increased digital presence and internet use in everyday activities are an important aspect in improving the living standards of the Nepali public. The government, therefore, promised to develop “Digital Nepal” by 2025 at the World Telecommunication Development Conference held in Argentina in October 2017.
In the electoral campaigns last year, politicians frequently used buzzwords like ‘free Wi-Fi’ and ‘smart city’. The country’s ministers and senior officials often inaugurate online portals, mobile apps, or any other digital technology tool that make people hopeful for the future. And yet, the internet service in the country remains poor.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development defines the digital divide as “the gap between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies and their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.”
In fact, the digital divide is an expansive concept. In the late 1990s, it was understood as a gap between those who have access to computers and the internet, and those who have not. When information and communication technology (ICT) devices became more affordable and widely accessible at the beginning of the 21st century, the digital divide concept was interpreted as skill disparities between various groups of people in regards to the effective use of ICT devices. Then, scholars argued that the digital divide should be assessed on whether or not ICT devices bring forth positive changes to users’ livelihoods. Hence, a third layer of the digital divide was created, i.e., the “digital usage/outcome divide” that measures inequalities regarding users’ capacities to exploit ICT devices for productive purposes, such as income growth.
In recent years, the digital divide concept has further expanded to socio-cultural and psychological spheres. It is argued that these aspects—such as attitudes towards technology, experiences of anxiety, and technophobia emotions—represent important sources of motivation that make people more inclined to either use or not use ICT devices. Scholars suggest that access to ICTs is more of a culturally informed decision than a straightforward outcome of socio-economic disparities. To this extent, then, the digital divide might never be successfully bridged if socio-cultural factors known to be pivotal to technology adoption vary across different societies in the world.
Nepal has been working to mitigate the digital access gap for long. Nepal’s internet penetration, according to a Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA) report from last January, is 63.81 percent. This data includes all mobile users who have access to the internet. However, a number of international organisations portray an austere picture of digital inequalities in the country. For instance, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have indicated that Nepal’s internet penetration is below 20 percent.
Nearly two-thirds of the Nepali public are connected to the internet, mainly through mobile devices. Ideally, in such a condition, most internet services available should be compatible with the mobile devices. However, mobile devices are ineffective as a medium to access services for the following reasons: First, most of the public service websites are compatible with computers, not with mobile devices. Second, a large portion of the public relies on second and third generation (2G and 3G) cellular technologies that are not good enough to work with rich multimedia content. Even though 4G cellular technology was introduced last year, it was not widely connected across the country. Third, there are other challenges related to the digital infrastructure. For example, technical support services are not easily available at an affordable price. Similarly, electricity supply, though much better than before, is not reliable.
Owing to these challenges, mobile devices cannot seriously engage people on digital platforms for professional services. Rather, internet access through mobile devices, due to access to light data, is only suitable for watching YouTube videos and for social media communications. Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are often recorded as the topmost viewed websites in Nepal.
Poor service delivery
The ultimate goal of digital gap reduction is to deliver public services through various digital platforms that are politics-free, cost-saving, transparent, timely, and accessible 24/7 from anywhere in the world. This sort of digital empowerment of the public is possible through a full-fledge e-government service. For instance, an ideal e-government provides the public with a collaborative and empowering environment so that citizens can be fully involved and use integrated services available on various digital platforms.
Even though private sector e-commerce activities have been gradually expanding, government services through online channels are very limited and irregular. Every ministry and government department in the country has their own website. But these are static, seldom updated, and often used for showcasing photographs of ministers and secretaries. On these websites, a user can find information of the government’s interests, including information updates, press releases and online documents. Public inquiries via email are untimely, if at all, responded to. There is no online payment system for government taxes or one cannot get any official documents through online communications. Even social media accounts of government officials are not regular and updated. The Prime Minister’s official Twitter account, for instance, has been suspended for quite a while, and the public does not know why Nepal is on the wrong side of the digital divide. In 2016, Nepal was ranked 135th in the world among UN member-states on the e-government development index. Concerned stakeholders need to understand that the digital divide does not end when everyone has access to the internet and to ICT devices. Users need to develop knowledge and skills to handle ICT devices, and be able to use the internet for positive changes in their everyday life.
Acharya is a research scholar at the University of Ottawa, Canada