Access to phones and the internet

The last two decades have seen a massive increase in the number of mobile phone connections in India. But not everyone uses phones and the internet in the same way.

Since the first mobile phone call in India was made in 1995, the rapid uptake of mobile phones and mobile internet has transformed the way Indians communicate, learn, work and shop.

Rise of the mobile phone

The advent of mobile phones democratised phone ownership in a way that landline phones were not able to. In 1999, 7% of Indian households owned a landline phone, and by 2005 it had peaked at 14% of households. Today, less than 3% homes have them[1].

Mobile phone ownership, on the other hand, took off rapidly. From 2008 to 2020, the number of registered mobile SIM cards in India more than tripled. There are now over one billion active SIM cards in the country[2] for a population of nearly 1.4 billion[3].

With 82 mobile connections for every 100 people, India is 160th out of 208 countries in terms of mobile phone penetration[4]. Vietnam and Bangladesh are among the countries with more SIM cards than people, and in the world as a whole there are more SIM cards than people[5].

However this could be because some people and businesses may have more than one connection.

Mobile phone usage in India

Administrative data, or top-down data that looks at the numbers of assets (phones, toilets, vehicles) that have been built or sold can sometimes miss the full picture. This data may capture the number of devices sold or assets built, but may not capture who is using them and how. These gaps can be filled in by bottom-up household survey data that is constructed from asking people what they own and whether they use it.

To understand how many people actually use phones and who they are, we look at two nationally representative sample surveys of over a million people each conducted by the Indian government. The National Sample Survey Office's (NSSO) Multiple Indicator Survey and the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) both directly asked respondents in 2019-21 about whether they had recently used a phone[6].

Overall, 70% of people[7] in the NSSO survey - or 700 million people[8] - answered the question whether they have "used a mobile telephone with an active sim card for the last three months" by saying yes[9]. A little over half of women had used phones as against over eight in ten men.

The NFHS surveys a narrower age group and finds similarly[10].

The majority of mobile phone users in India share their phone with a family member. The use of a shared mobile phone is particularly prevalent among women and those in rural areas. Men and urban residents are more likely to have phones that they exclusively use.

But a substantial share of people did not use a phone at all as of 2021. Thirty percent of people or roughly 300 million people said that they had not used a phone in the last three months.

The non-usage of mobile phones isn't simply a question of lack of access; nine-in-ten non-users of phones live in households that do have a phone.

Three characteristics that particularly stand out among India's phone non-users are gender, education and age. More than seven in ten of those who do not use phones are women. Secondly, close to half of those who do not currently use phones in India are illiterate. Thirdly, the elderly are much less likely to use phones than younger people.

The gender gap is large even among relatively younger women, but narrows substantially among those educated up to or beyond graduation. The gender gap in phone use also narrows as incomes increase, but a meaningful closing of the gap is visible only among the richest 5% people[11]. In this small slice, mobile phone use is close to 90% for both men and women.

Access to the internet

The rise of mobile phones also powered the spread of internet availability in India.

India added 18 million wired internet connections in the last six years but more than 500 million mobile broadband connections in the same time.

Internet use

Indians overwhelmingly access the internet through their phones. Only 2% of homes in India had internet access in 2009, but once mobile broadband entered the space, the pace of access accelerated. By 2014, nearly three in ten homes had internet access and by 2020, more than four in ten homes were connected to the internet[12].

Surveys which ask individuals about their usage of the internet also find that by 2021, over four in ten Indians had used the Internet[13]. In terms of internet use, India is placed 145th out of 182 countries[14].

With internet usage as well, a strong gender gap exists. While more than half of men had used the internet, only a third of women had, and usage was nearly twice as high in urban areas than rural areas.

Income and education also affect Internet use, similar to how they affect phone use. In the poorest quintile[15], only a fifth had used the Internet by 2019-2021, while in the richest quintile, over one in three had. The share of internet users among the higher educated is ten times as high as among those who are illiterate.

The digitally disconnected

Although phones are the primary way of accessing the internet, not everyone with a mobile phone uses the internet. Among women in particular, only half of mobile users also accessed the internet as of 2021.

Additionally, a substantial share of people used neither. Nearly one in ten men and over four in ten women used neither phones nor the internet as of 2021. They tended to belong to relatively poorer households and were more likely to be either very young adults or the elderly.

[1] The National Family Health Surveys captured the ownership of landline and mobile telephones from 1998 to 2019-21.

[2] As of the end of 2023, after excluding out-of-service and out-of-use SIM cards

[3] 2023 projection by Census authority Registrar General of India

[4] World Bank World Development Indicators (data is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union). Data refers to the year 2021.

[5] According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the number of mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants crossed over the 100-mark in 2017. In 2023, the world had 111 mobile connections per 100 people and close to 9 billion SIM cards in absolute terms.

[6] Multiple Indicator Survey was conducted in the 78th round of National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) surveys. It captures a host of individual and household characteristics of Indians, including mobile phone usage in the three months preceding the survey. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) mainly captures the maternal and child health situation in India. It also looks at a few socioeconomic characteristics of Indian households that includes ownership of assets such as refrigerators and mobile phones. For further analysis, DFI uses the NSS survey since it covers people of all age groups and uses a more specific question.

[7] People 15 years and above in age

[8] According to the official projections by the Government of India, there were 1013 million Indians (or close to 1 billion) Indians above 15 in 2021. The survey was conducted in 2020.

[9] The question asked was: whether [the respondent] uses any mobile telephone with [an] active sim card for the last three months? (yes: exclusive use -1, yes: shared with household member - 2, yes: shared with non-household member - 3, no - 4)

[10] The NFHS surveys men in the 15-54 age group and women in the 15-49 age group and on mobile phones, asks, "Do you have a mobile phone that you yourself use?". The NFHS finds that that 54% of women and 91% of men have a mobile phone that they themselves use.

[11] To create income classes, we carve five equal sized groups ("quintiles") of Indians based on their consumption expenditure as reported in NSSO surveys. Consumption expenditure is used as a proxy for income, in the absence of official data on income. The top 5% of individuals are carved out in a similar fashion.

[12] NSS 66th Round (2009-2010), Household Consumer Expenditure Survey, asked the head of the household whether the "household has access to internet at home on the date of survey". NSS 71st round (2014), Social Consumption, Education Survey asks the question slightly differently: "If any member of the household aged 14 years & above has access to [use] internet facility, then the household would be considered as having internet access." NSS 78th round (2020), Multiple Indicator Survey, asks individuals "whether the household is having broadband access within the premises", where broadband includes both phone-based internet and wireless connections

[13] NFHS 5 (2019-2021) asks men and women between the ages of 15 and 49 and men in the age group 15-54 if "they have ever used the Internet".

[14] International Telecommunication Union (ITU) data puts India's internet use penetration at 46% of the population. ITU records the proportion of individuals who used the Internet from any location in the last three months (via fixed or mobile network). It uses data officially provided by national statistical offices and telecommunication ministries.

[15] The NFHS categorises households into five groups (or wealth quintiles) based on assets that they own and services they can access,

To cite this article: Abhishek Waghmare (2024), 'Access to phones and the internet.' Published on