Access and the internetClearing up four misconceptions about digital connectivity in Nepal
Much commentary about the internet in Nepal is written from a pro-innovation perspective. The position is that innovation is a given and that it is something that will, or must, be taken up by all. Hence, there is no other point of discussion except for how to bring the internet, and by proxy innovation, to everyone. The few objections to the directives and policies that propose innovation by way of the internet concern privacy and security issues, and policing of the internet by authorities. These protestations concern effects; there is rarely any credible evidence behind the positions taken, especially when some of them are ill-informed or blatantly incorrect.
I will attempt here to discuss four such misconceptions that often make the rounds in the popular media. The concern here is not whether the Internet is good or bad for society, but rather about generalisations and the validity of the assumptions behind connectivity-obsessed agendas.
Most new users of the internet go online through their mobile phones. According to our research, the average mobile internet subscriber used 105mb of data in 2015, which is roughly equivalent to an hour of YouTube video at the lowest quality. This usage is minimal, reminding one of the dial-up era of the internet. How then are telecom companies registering an increase in data consumption every year? Those who are already using the internet tend to consume a bit more than they did the previous year. However, there is more to it.
Mobile internet took off thanks largely to smartphones in the United States back in 2010. Data consumption by the top 10 percent increased by a 109 percent from 2010 to 2011. The rise was even more astounding for the top one percent, at an 155 percent increase. Meanwhile, a large percentage of the population hardly used any data. The top ten percent use 10 (or 20) times more mobile-Internet data than the bottom 40 percent. Research has shown that this gap has been increasing every year. The trend is similar in Nepal. While more people might have mobile phones in their hands, this ‘gap’ has not closed; instead, it has shifted from ‘access’ to ‘usage’. The analogy I like to use is that of filling in an existing hole by using mud from newly dug, bigger hole.
The 80/20 rule is a generalisation that claims that 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. In case of mobile data, 80 percent of Twitter traffic comes from 20 percent of locations in Nepal. Moreover, almost 60 percent of total tweets from Nepal originate from the Kathmandu Valley with 41 percent of total tweets from the city of Kathmandu alone. Sixteen districts fail to register at all on Twitter activity. Twelve of these districts are from the Mid and Far West.
The pattern is not limited to Twitter. Google search requests, along with Youtube and Facebook usage, show similar unevenness. Thus it is more prudent to look at usage (how much time/data someone spends on the internet) rather than access (if someone uses the internet). The explanation is simple. A small proportion of the population is responsible for most of online traffic. These are relatively affluent people residing in the major urban hubs of the country. The distribution and traffic of 3G towers will further support this assertion.
At the end of May 2018, mobile phone subscription in Nepal was 130 percent. Thirty percent of those with mobile phones were mobile internet subscribers. These are subscribers and not necessarily users. Anyone with a mobile handset that can open up a webpage can be considered an internet subscriber. This leads to the question: when does a subscriber become a user?
The Nepal Telecommunications Authority and other telecom companies do not have a strict definition. We therefore turn to the International Telecommunication Union, which states that you are an internet user if you have used the internet from any location and from any device within the last three months. If you accidently turn on mobile data on your smartphone and your apps download updates in the background for a few seconds, you become an Internet user. So is someone who spends hours daily on the internet. If we consider all subscribers as users, we get a rosy picture of internet use and you reach a figure as high as fifty percent in Nepal. If we limit the criteria to usage in hours per day, we get a opposing picture, down to 10 percent or less. Closer to an hour’s use of the internet is considered ‘meaningful use’.
Connectivity-obsessed agendas assume linkages between connectivity and (economic) benefits. We do not hear about other possible outcomes. The internet is a skill-based technology that can widen existing income inequalities. The affluent and well-educated have been able to take advantage of the digital economy in the developed countries. The conditions that discourage use, like a small pool of internet users, illiteracy, small-scale employment in the technology industry and low-income levels, will not magically disappear with the arrival of connectivity. Agendas that champion connectivity have little to no understanding of informational behaviour and the coexistence of small-scale users, recent adopters and dropouts, alongside heavy internet users and non-users. Since many in policymaking positions believe that there are always new technological fixes for development problems, they say very little on who benefits, who is left out and more importantly, by how much. Benefits are assumed to exist for everyone and everywhere.
Pandey is a researcher at Martin Chautari