Free Float Internet Policies (Findings from access and use survey)

Here we list the findings from the quantitative analysis of the household surveys conducted in 2014/15 to understand the access and use of the Internet technologies, including the fixed and mobile broadband. The research was carried out by Martin Chautari (2014-2016) with support from the Ford Foundation. This project would not have been possible without the generous support of the local partners. We would like to thank Nasancha Pucha: (Panauti), Himalaya Milan Secondary School (Tangting) and Progressive Women Society (Changunarayan) for their facilitation, assistance and support. We are also grateful to Bhagabati Gautam for her assistance and volunteering work in Pragatinagar.

Note: The paper has appeared in the journal “Studies in Nepali History and Society” (SINHAS), Vol. 21 No. 1. It is also available online here. The full set of briefs and papers can be found in our Universal Connectivity page]

  • A family spends 7 percent of their household income on mobile phone bills.
  • Though reported penetration of mobile phone has well crossed the cent percent mark (120%), the five locations had 72 percent household ownership (and similar individual ownership among the respondents). Therefore, NTAs subscriber count is likely to be sim counts.
  • Only half of the mobile phone owners had ever used internet from their sets.
  • Only 8 percent of the households had a fixed internet connection.
  • Less than 3 percent households in Dapcha own a computer (laptop or desktop). Except Panauti which has around 35 percent household ownership of computers, the four site averages to around 8 percent penetration. This is similar to statistics reported by the World Bank (8.9% in 2015).
  • Anything better than a weak statistical association among the Internet use and socio-demographic variables could not be found. For example, people with higher education did not exhibit a tendency to use the Internet for education and employment activities.
  • Income groups were indistinguishable in their use of mobile Internet.
  • Results on the ethnicity-Internet link show that in a particular settlement the ICT penetration and ownership of devices seem to reinforce the socio-economic exclusion. Across the sites, however, people belonging to the single ethnic group have varied access levels of ownership such as the Newars in Dapcha and Panauti or Gurungs in Changunarayan and Tangting.
  • Location advantage offered a better explanation of Internet adoption than chasing the ethnicity and income threads.
  • Over two-third of the people in the survey said home Internet was “not required”. The indistinguishable usage pattern across income groups and age levels indicate main reason for non-use could be the absence of any compelling need for such technology.
  • In our survey sites, only Panauti and Pragatinagar had households with more fixed broadband penetration than the unflattering national average.
  • Only 12 percent of the total Internet users have used the Internet or mobile-apps for private or government electronic-services (e-services). Only 27 percent of the respondents say they have ever used Internet for obtaining government information.
  • Four out of five mobile phone using respondents, including the broadband Internet users, complained about regular “network problems.”
  • There is dearth of evidence to unlock association between local content, Internet infrastructure and affordability to forge meaningful ICT policies.

The IT policy documents will do better if they accept that the outcome of a technological intervention depends on the use people find for the technology. There is no denying that the relationships among the digital divide, poverty and education are enormously complex, particularly when, for instance, the difference in relative and absolute poverty will make available studies about the relationship questionable. The complexity also becomes obvious when policy interventions could frame questions of the divide variously as problems of access, or skill, or content. Our survey reinforces the understanding that adoption decisions are primarily need-driven and based on cost-effectiveness of the investment. Farmers of Dapcha, for instance, are likely to revert to existing information channels if Internet do not offer content tailored to their information requests.

Research Bites: Universal Connectivity

This post contains short summaries of research briefs broadly related to Information Technology and Communication. The research was carried out by Martin Chautari during 2014-2016. The homepage of the research is http://www.martinchautari.org.np/index.php/projects/?pid=1

Universal Connectivity in Nepal: A Policy Review (MC Brief No. 12)
UC-related policies assume a levelling effect of the ICTs, and little consider that technologies are themselves socially constructed artefacts. They have provided a rationality for mobilizing public resources, for erecting new institutions and facilitating the sustaining of certain business interests, particularly that of the IT elite in Nepal. The solution lies in formulating evidence based UC policies while openly acknowledging the limitations of the technologies in mainstreaming the marginalized and vulnerable section of the population.

Stakeholders for Universal Connectivity in Nepal  (MC Brief No. 15)

UC-related policies in Nepal should focus on developing the scientific and technological core and not simply on facilitating acquisition and diffusion of new Internet-based technologies. As a topmost priority, the design of digital ecosystem should address particularly ways to manage immense power demand. It should not be left as an issue belonging to another ecosystem or to be managed by yet another ministry. Past endeavours have sufficiently demonstrated ambitions to transform the country with diffusion of imported technologies have not worked.

Deliver Through Mobiles First  (MC Brief No. 18)

Lack of benchmark studies such as on speed, penetration and price hinder setting achievable targets. But the real problem of ‘digital divide’ can only be dealt meaningfully by situating it in the context of broader socio-economic divide in the country. Widespread diffusion of the mobile phones provides an opportunity to direct, shape and fine-tune existing policies. Instead of leaning unreliably on the capacity-centric development model, Nepal’s IT policies need to frame ways to integrate user’s everyday experience of mobile phones into the drive towards universal connectivity.

A Regression Analysis into Nepali ICT’s Energy Consumption and its Implications (Draft of paper published by IEEE)

Even with the most lenient assumptions regarding the behaviour of the ICT sector, it is a significant consumer of energy at the national level. The chase to parallel the energy demands of the transportation sector will see gains when large data centers are established to support e-governance, e-commerce and other data intensive always-online services. An energy audit of the ICT sector along with large scale studies on the context of technology has to be done simultaneously for Nepal.

ICT and Development – Is there a connection?

The idea that Information and Communications technologies (ICTs) are instrumental in national development has become the faith of the policy circle in the last decade. It is upon this premise that a robust ICT infrastructure would lower communication and transportation overheads, catalyze creative activities and eventually catalyze development activities. The impact of ICT on economic growth in the industrialized nations has been deeply explored and heatedly debated as an academic topic. Yet we are no closer to a formula linking characteristics of ICT technologies, their experience and inclusive development. The idea that ICT connects to growth is still a hypothesis. It remains unproven on scales, replication and its universality. There are several criticisms on the findings of ICT and Development (ICTD) literature, specifically in context of the economically least developed countries (LDCs).

There is a methodological criticism of the ICTD research, which is applicable to a wider range of empirical research. The major findings are based on the statistical technique called regression analysis and on a concept known as ‘p-value’. There have been critiques of the empirical paradigm from the very beginning. The mainstream empirical research relies heavily on the notion of p-values because it makes quick inferences possible, without necessitating a thorough understanding of the underlying phenomena. Researches that employ p-value without well-reasoned scientific argument are available in a significant volume. Owing to misuse and misinterpretation in the social sciences and psychology research, the American Statistical Association floated a notice in 2016 that inferences based on the p-value should not be used specifically in the policy making processes. A leading journal of psychology has completely banned the use of p-values. The ICT research needs to be re-examined from the newer perspective; a perspective that does not rely on the short-cut of p-values.

There are other methodological issues regarding the findings of ICTD research. As the ICT and economic growth relation has been examined chiefly on the dataset of the industrialized OECD countries, one can also raise doubts regarding the generalization of the results to the LDCs. Similarly, the reliability of dataset is in the LDCs is itself questionable. For instance, the MIS reports of the Nepal Telecommunication Authority claim a hundred percent penetration of mobile phones, which clearly is an overstatement.

Besides the doubts on the methodology of ICTD research, several socioeconomic arguments can be provided that cast doubts on the universality of the “ICT for development” phenomenon. I will state a few. The strongest argument is regarding the affordability of Internet. A popular criterion considers that an Internet connection affordable if its tariff is within the five percent of per capita income. This criterion renders even an entry level Internet unaffordable to a vast majority of the Nepali population. The slow economic growth creates a pessimism that broadband would remain unaffordable to the majority of Nepalis in the decades to come. The proponents of “ICT for development” would argue that investments in ICT will eventually boost the economic growth and Internet will be affordable to the masses in the LDCs. But such a miracle has not been observed. The World Bank mentions that the benefits of ICT are not observable in the countries that lack so-called ‘analog compliments’ for a digital economy, i.e. the triplet of favorable business climate, strong human capital, and good governance. Imprecise as these terms are, they nonetheless imply that the relation between ICT and development is far from being universal.

Another criticism on the relevance of ICTD research to the LDCs is based on the interdependencies of the critical infrastructure. The dependencies between critical infrastructures are observed during both the development and execution phases. The underdeveloped roads have posed challenges to Nepal Telecom’s ongoing project of laying optical fibers in the mid-hills. On the execution phase, a fully fledged usage of ICT demands a robust electricity infrastructure as it prerequisite. A research by Martin Chautari has shown that the Nepali ICT has already become a significant consumer of electrical energy despite Internet penetration is still low in the country.

One could argue that the ICT infrastructure can be run on imported electricity or diesel based generators. However, a dependence on imported energy would widen Nepal’s trade deficit. The trade deficit would also rise due to the import of ICT goods and related repair and maintenance materials as Nepal does not produce them. Thus any would-be benefit of a Nepal wide ICT infrastructure has to be seriously analyzed and contrasted with the trade deficits incurred by ICT goods imports. Such an analysis has not been done hitherto by the policy makers.

My intention is to convey that ICT is not a mystical mantra that cures the illness of the society; the findings of ICTD research are based on several controversial methodological assumptions and socioeconomic premises. It is despairing that the popular media has been highlighting the one sided version of the ICTD research. The views of the critiques also require acknowledgements. In summary, investments for national ICT infrastructure should be preceded by a series of thorough investigations at the user end. “ICT for development” could be a target, but it is not an accepted principle.

उर्जा संकट, तटस्थ नीति

कान्तिपुर दैनिकमा लगभग छ महिना पहिले (१-६-२०७३) सरकारको उर्जासन्बन्धी ३८ बुँदे कार्ययोजना  एउटा समाचार छापिएको थियो । नेपालमा विकासका नीति र परियोजना बिना कुनै सोचबिचार थोपरिने गरेको छ, र त्यो समाचारले पनि त्यस्तै निराशा झल्काएको थियो । दुई वर्षमा लोडसेडिङ्ग समाप्त गर्ने दाबी गर्दै अगाडि सारिएको  त्यस ३८ बुँदे कार्ययोजनाबारे मैंले आफ्नो प्रतिकृया पठाएको थिएँ, तर त्यसले कान्तिपूर दैनिकमा स्थान पाएन । त्यो प्रतिकृया अझै सान्दर्भिक छ जस्तो लाग्छ, त्यसैले फेरी त्यही कुरा दोहोराउँदैछु ।

उर्जामन्त्रीले प्रत्येक नागरिकले दूरसञ्चार सेवा लिँदा तिर्ने शुल्कको निश्चित रकम काटी जलविद्युत क्षेत्रको विकासमा लगानी जुटाउने नयाँ अवधारणा ल्याएको समाचारमा उल्लेख छ । तर, सेवा शुल्कबाट कति रकम काटिनेबारे कुनै मापदण्ड रहेको देखिँदैन । नेपालमा कुन क्षेत्रले कति बिजुली खपत गर्छ, खासगरी आइसिटिको उर्जा माँग कति छ भन्ने लेखाजोखा कहिले पनि भएको छैन । किन, कहिलेसम्म र कति रकम काटिने भन्ने आधार प्रष्ट छैन ।

उर्जाको प्रसङ्ग आउने बित्तिकै आइसिट संरचनाको कुरा गर्नु अनिवार्य हुन्छ । किन भने आइसिटको उर्जा आवश्यक्ता आम मानिसले सोचेभन्दा निकै नै धेरै हुन्छ । नेपाललाई डिजिटल बनाउने लक्ष्य लिएका नीतिले ऊर्जा संकटबारे गम्भीर छैन, यो चिन्ताको विषय हो । “विकासको लागि सूचना प्रविधि” भन्ने नाराले मन्त्रमुग्ध भएर नीति निर्माता सूचना प्रविधिको पूर्वाधारमा लगानी गर्न आतुर देखिन्छन् । सूचना प्रविधि संरचनाको विकाससँगै विद्युतिय उर्जाको माँग झन् झन् विकराल हुँदै जानेछ । नेपालको आइसिटिमा ऊर्जा खपतको लेखाजोखा (इनर्जी अडिट) नहुँदा सूचना प्रविधि (आइसिटि) सम्बन्धि नीतिमा उल्लेखित लक्ष्यहरू यथार्थपरक छैनन् ।

गत वर्षको नाकाबन्दीमा एनसेलले काठमाडौंस्थित डाटासेन्टरको लागि दिनमा ४५०० लिटर डिजेल आवश्यक पर्छ भनेको थियो । हामीले गरेको एउटा अनुसन्धानले नेपालको आइसिटि क्षेत्रले अहिले नै यातातयात क्षेत्रको हाराहारीमा ऊर्जा खपत गरेको देखाएको छ, जबकी नेपलमा आइसिटिको पहुँच र प्रयोग अझै नगण्य छ ।

आइसिटिको ऊर्जा खपत पूर्वाधारमा मात्र होइन, प्रयोगमा पनि निर्भर हुने कुराको हेक्का राख्नुपर्छ । इन्टरनेटबाट प्रदान गरिने सेवा ‘अलवेज अन’ (चौबिसै घण्टा उपलब्ध हुने) प्रकृतिका हुन्छन् र तिनमा हुने उर्जाखपत डाटाको प्रवाह र भण्डारनमा भरपर्छ । उदाहरणको लागि एउटा गुगल सर्चले खर्च गर्ने उर्जाबाट ६० वाट्को बल्बलाई १७ सेकेण्डसम्म बाल्न सकिन्छ । नेपाली डिजिटल नीतिले पूर्वाधार संरचना र डाटा प्रवाहको डिजाइन दुवैमा हुने उर्जा खपत यकीन गरेको छैन । बरू उर्जाका चुनौतीलाई केही वाक्यमै समेटेर पन्छाएको छ ।

 

What’s with the 512 Kbps?

512 is a number that we are likely to encounter if we have been using internet in Nepal. Nepali homes with internet pre-fibre and post-dial-up are likely to have installed a 512 Kbps unlimited cable internet connection. If you have subscribed to Nepal Telecom’s volume based ADSL internet, you have 512 Kbps speed. We can find 512 multiple times in current Nepali information technology narratives, visions and policies. Here are a few ways to look at 512 Kbps in the context of Nepal:

  1.  It is the proposed minimum download speed for wired-internet. For mobile-phone internet there is no minimum set in the documents.
  2. Connections offering download speed of 512 Kbps and above are labelled as broadband in the IT/ICT/Broadband literature.
  3. It is the common default fallback speed on high-speed fibre internet plans after the data volume has been exhausted.
  4. ISPs can also throttle your Mbps internet speed down to 512 Kbps anytime as part of their ‘fair usage policy’. If you are wondering why your 10 Mbps internet is delivering no faster than a 512 Kbps connection, data limit and throttling are usually the two main culprits.
  5.  It will take you 1 minute to download a smart-phone quality photograph from the Internet or 21 hours for a DVD-movie with a constant speed of 512Kbps.
  6. You will be charged Rs. 1 every 17 seconds on a Rs. 1 per MB mobile-phone Internet tariff delivering the data at a stable speed of 512 Kbps. If you are not paying at that rate means you are getting data at a much lower speed or browsing mostly text content.

Remarks:

  •  In IT related policy documents you can find targets mentioning 512 Kbps such as: “Broadband access will be expanded across the country with the goal of achieving a broadband Internet user penetration rate of 30% at a minimum of 512 kbps and making available at least 10 Mbps download speed on demand in urban areas by 2018” (Source: www.nta.gov.np/en/component/joomdoc/Broadband%20Policy-Draft.pdf/download). It is same as in India where the decision to classify 512 Kbps as broadband has been heavily criticized with some labelling it as ‘a joke’, ‘archaic and useless’, ‘out of touch with reality’ and a ‘move back to the dark ages’ (Too many to list here. Readers can google or bing: trai India broadband 512 and find out for themselves). The criticism comes due to the telecom regulators buckling to pressure from the telecom operators and a u-turn from the original 2Mbps recommendation given a few months earlier. Currently India’s average Internet speed puts it at the slowest in the Asia-Pacific region. A minimum of 512 Kbps now is akin to a dial-up connection where most countries in the world are far ahead. Such actions do not match with Nepal’s digital ambitions expressed in the policy documents. The (speed) gap is wide as ever.
  • The data cap and throttling creates a paradox. High speed internet is meant to be used for high bandwidth applications such as high-definition video and live TV streaming but data cap restricts such possibilities. For example, an internet user on a 10 Mbps connection will exhaust the 80 GB data cap after just 18 hours of full usage. A 4 hour per day usage can extend access to ‘fast’ internet for 5 days only, leaving 25 days on the buffered browsing experience. The reasons to why it may seem to last longer to a customer are because: (i) ISPs give the promised 10 Mbps on certain time slots only as an realization of their ‘fair usage policy’; and (ii) customers mostly use the internet for low bandwidth applications such as web browsing and VoIP (viber/skype voice chat) services anyways.
  •  Regulations do not cover the minimum speed at which ISPs can throttle the internet in Nepal. Currently ISPs actively throttle the bandwidth under the ‘fair usage policy’ (FUP). For example, ISPs can penalize the users that are responsible for heavy use of the bandwidth by slowing their connections to those applications. Throttling has been a thorny issue worldwide with frequent reports of intentional throttling by the ISPs. Such measure also raises questions on the nation’s net neutrality ambitions. The usual response from the ISPs, as is the case in India, is that without throttling they cannot provide fast internet at an affordable price. Therefore, though India wants to set the minimum at 512 Kbps, ISPs want it to be set at 64 Kbps at best. Nepal has no minimum but we can rest assured that we are being actively throttled at promised speeds and will be throttled down to a lower speed after data cap is hit. Worryingly, there is nothing we can do about it. Here is an example definition of what ‘fair’ is: “Day to day surfing, checking emails and occasional downloading will not get you into trouble. However, downloading a 200-300 MB movie clip/data every day is almost certain to. The key is to keep an eye on the amount that you are downloading. Then if you’re classed as a heavy or excessive user, restructure your internet usage pattern so that you are not uploading or downloading at peak times. If you don’t take heed of their warnings, system will slow down the speed of your connection after your data limit.” (Source: https://www.classic.com.np/support/fair-usage-policy-fup/)To put it simply, ISPs and telecoms want the users’ to stick to text-based website browsing. Ironically they themselves sell fast internet so that you can enjoy the multimedia experience. Indian telecom operators such as Airtel recently recommended a minimum of 64 Kbps, or an alternative, not set minimum speed on throttling in order for internet to be affordable. The original recommendation from TRAI (telecom regulator in India) was for a minimum of 2 Mbps broadband speed, which was quickly pulled down to a neither-here-nor-there 512 Kbps. The original recommendations were based on studies of internet traffic and applications which suggested a minimum of 1 Mbps for India. Given that our fibre internet connections comes from such Indian operators at their dictated price, throttling and data cap is even severe in Nepal. And its your fault for not adhering to the ‘fair usage policy’ if your connection speed slows down. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Note: A slightly longer version covering explanation of what Kbps means and how to convert one unit to the other is at http://ucnepal.blogspot.com/2016/12/whats-with-512-kbps.html

Chance visit to Chautari

A few months before, the then education minister with his entourage met Martin Chautari researchers and sought advice on their views on the past reforms in the school and higher education. The after-office meeting went on for two hours. It helped bring to the fore complex issues about unwillingness, half-heartedness and confusion on the part of those who were and have been at the helm of the reforms. I thought it proper to raise two different issues to the visiting leader.

First, in order for the politicians, policy makers and planners to have ready advice on their plate for any of their priority issues, a bunch of some other people must have toiled for years and produced useful (ready to be acted upon) gist of policy options. To assume that that bunch of people will have somehow managed to accomplish the tasks without any financial and institutional support from the government or society all those years is to be at best wishful, and at worst ignorant. Researchers need to survive and institutions that help flourish a research culture also need to endure. They cannot provide unpaid advice, especially to the class of people who, as my colleague Pratyoush-ji aptly puts it, don’t have their ears and minds wired together. Thus, all those who seek expert advice from experts need to think about conditions that are to be met for the existence of such expertise. To put it more bluntly, ministers and their consuls should find ways to support institutions like MC well before they consider seeking informed suggestions.

Second, Nepali politicians and their advisors are obsessed with structural reforms,  in part because they are themselves unresolved about complex issues and thus it is much easier to attribute the wrongs to the system than to dive into the details, and in part because the top down prescriptions cannot be but wholesale changes. This is truer to those who are bred into the radical/revolutionary politics. The minister also seems to be exploring experts who would serve in his commission for devising ways for such an unmaking. To the contrary, I suggested him to deal with a concrete problem: why are disciplines such as social sciences and humanities in a dilapidated state in Nepal? If the purpose of any reform in the school and higher education is to assist generating critical and informed citizenry, and not merely the manpower (for, we already have spent over four decades of attempts to produce the latter), then surely, the problem should be confronted head-on. The problem exists, and will exist, irrespective of the size and number of the universities in Nepal, or of the issue
of the state control over the university administration, management and funding. The education market, as it happens in countries like Nepal, is a place for selling dreams and not for exchanging skill-sets and critical knowledge, and if left without state interventions and investments, will continue churning out manpower without memory and history.

The minister promised to get back to Chautari soon. But I suspected that the on-going crisis in politics and logistics made it not very certain that he and Chautari would manage to come often together. To my satisfaction, my suspicion has now turned into a weak belief.