By December 2020, the Left government in Kerala plans to connect the entire state through an extensive optical fibre network in a bid to achieve its objective of connecting every household with high-speed Internet. A state that ranks high on various social development parameters, Kerala was the first in India to announce right to access the Internet as a basic human right.
Last week, the cabinet chaired by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan signed off on the ambitious Kerala Fibre Optic Network (K-FON) proposal through which the government aims to bring high-speed internet to rural and urban households, government offices and schools. Further, the government statement said nearly two million families in the state living below the poverty line would get internet free of cost. Internet at nominal rates would also be offered to those who cannot afford expensive plans of existing service providers.
An election promise
In the run-up to the 2016 Assembly elections, the Left Democratic Front (LDF), a coalition of parties headed by the CPM, had promised in its manifesto that it would ensure people, especially those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, would be given access to the Internet as part of empowering them. This was a marked change from earlier years when the Left parties often adopted protectionist measures and agitated in the state through its trade union wings against bringing in new technologies.
In 2017, a year after it formed the government, the LDF declared the internet as a basic human right, nudging its earlier campaign promise along. In September this year, the Kerala High Court gave a fillip to the government's stated agenda by ruling in favour of a female student who was suspended from the college hostel in for resisting the warden's rules regarding Internet usage for students. Mobile phones were barred to undergraduate students in the hostel between 6 pm and 10 pm citing misuse. But the petitioner, Faheema Shirin, argued that students like her were denied access to knowledge through the ban on cell-phones. The court finally agreed that right to access the Internet was a part of the right to privacy and the right to education.
How will Kerala raise the funds and set up infrastructure?
The K-FON project, being funded at a cost of Rs 1,548 crore mainly from the capital at the disposal of Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), is being implemented with the combined resources of the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) and the Kerala State IT Infrastructure Limited (KSITI). All Internet service providers can optimise the KFON infrastructure to provide connections to the public. The project tender has been bagged by a consortium of firms led by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL).
For a state fiscally weakened by consecutive floods and low GST returns, the move to provide Internet to every household may seem ill-advised, but the government claims the proposal will be constructive for businesses rooted in artificial intelligence, blockchain and Internet of Things (IoT). It is also desperate to ramp up the state's technical infrastructure in order to support big-ticket projects and boost tech confidence among entrepreneurs.
Even though Kerala ranks very low in the ease of doing business rankings, it occupies the second spot after Delhi-NCR in terms of Internet penetration in the country. Some even say the K-Fon project can be easily implemented by December next year, considering the progress the state has made to make Internet accessible in all areas. Kerala's internet penetration rate stands at 54 per cent, overtaken only by Delhi (69 per cent), according to a recent report of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). Kerala also figures high when it comes to proportion of female Internet users. However, there is a wide gap between internet users in the state's urban and rural areas. As per TRAI data, only about 2.8 lakh people in India have access to high-speed fibre optic connections.
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