Geographies in Depth

How a $12 phone could help close India’s digital divide

The phone could help bridge India's digital divide.

The phone could help bridge India's digital divide. Image: Photo by Amit Chivilkar on Unsplash

Andrea Willige
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The Jio Bharat is a low-cost mobile phone designed to bridge the digital divide in India by providing basic internet access to the country’s rural population.
  • India's mobile communications and digital economy are growing rapidly, with 5G services starting and reinforced digitalization efforts - but disparities remain nonetheless.
  • Overcoming digital divides across the world is the focus of the World Economic Forum’s EDISON Alliance which fosters the collaboration between the ICT community and other economic sectors.

At just $12, or 299 rupees, a new mobile phone is set to bridge the digital divide between India’s urban and rural population when it comes to mobile internet access.

Launched by India’s telecom giant Reliance Communications, the Jio Bharat is a “feature phone” designed for first-time internet users, offering basic functions without the complexity – and cost – of a smartphone, CNBC reports.

India's new JioBharat 4G phone.
This 4G phone could help close India’s digital divide. Image: Jio

Addressing the digital divide

While India is the second-largest smartphone market in the world, around 250 million mobile phone users in India are still using 2G networks, which mainly provide voice communications. The Jio Bharat is a 4G phone meant to put digital connectivity and functionality such as digital payments and content streaming within users’ reach.

According to Reliance, its plans are 30% cheaper and offer seven times more data than those of its competitors. The telecoms provider is hoping to get people to move across from 2G networks onto its Reliance Jio 4G platform, to raise user revenues and cross-sell services. Reliance also claims its network reaches 90% of India’s population.

Statistic illustrating the estimated number of smartphone users in 2021.
India is the second-largest smartphone market in the world after China. Image: Statista

India’s mobile communications and digital economy are booming

Mobile communications in India has been booming. At the end of 2022, there were over 1.15 billion wireless mobile users in India. The majority of traffic came from 4G data, with a user penetration rate of 44% across the country.

India has also started rolling out 5G mobile services – the next generation of high-speed mobile connectivity – in its major cities. The government’s aim is to reach 100% 5G coverage by the end of 2024. It’s estimated that 5G will make up 40% of the country’s mobile contracts by 2027.

Reliance’s launch comes at a time when the Indian government has made digital skills and infrastructure readiness its top priorities, the GSM Association reports. The Indian government has announced a range of programmes to boost digitalization, and promote financial and social inclusion. These include digital currency, digital banking and digital university.

Citizens can already access a suite of digital public services – called India Stack – by using the country’s single Digital ID for authentication. India’s digital economy grew 2.4 times faster last year than its economy overall, according to the Reserve Bank of India.

Two infographics illustrating the workplace digital skills matrix in India. digital divide
India leads the world in work digital skills. Image: Salesforce

India is on the digital forefront but disparities remain

The Global Digital Skills Index has put India at the top of digital skills readiness among the countries surveyed, scoring 63 out of 100 compared to an average score of 33. It’s particularly ahead of the curve when it comes workplace digital readiness, among the mix of advanced and emerging markets surveyed.

The same goes for India’s banking sector: India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, told the G-20 Summit, Bali, in November 2022 that 40% of the world’s real-time payments were channelled through India’s Unified Payment Interface in 2021. Moreover, 460 million new bank accounts in India had been opened based on digital identity, making the country a global leader in financial inclusion, he stated.


How is the World Economic Forum fostering a sustainable and inclusive digital economy?

However, disparities remain to be addressed, including a gender gap in mobile ownership, device affordability and digital literacy, according to the GSM Association. Clearly more options are needed for India’s mobile users and it’s hoped the Jio Barat will go some way to providing what they need.

The World Economic Forum supports initiatives to foster digital inclusion through its EDISON Alliance, which aims to accelerate the collaboration between the ICT community and other critical sectors of the economy. Bringing together over 100 leaders from the public and private sectors, it focuses on inclusion in health, education and finance.

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