NET.COLUMNS: Challenges Ahead

Recently, we at IndiaWorld launched a site on Indian history,
Itihaas. Reading about the India of
3,000 years ago, I was amazed at the richness and the glory that we had,
and saddened at the subsequent years of plundering and deprivation. Once
in a millennium there comes a force so overpowering that it can make or
break a civilisation.

Today, on the threshold of the next century, I cannot help
but think that India has one last opportunity to earn its rightful place
in the world.

The last force which united India was the British. Today,
the Internet is another such force, having the ability to raise India to
the next level, enabling India to compete in the world. The Internet is
the bridge — from our past to a glorious future. And yet, there is
little understanding of the challenges we face. I propose to outline
these, and suggest that we need to rise above our competitive instincts to
build the India of tomorrow — a networked India.

1. Infrastructure

India desperately needs a high-speed national network connecting its top
25 cities. The time-frame to have this ready is not the year 2000, but
now. While LAN speeds in India have kept pace with the rest of the world,
WAN speeds are at least 6 years behind that of the industrialised
countries. This is what needs to be immediately corrected. Building the
national Internet backbone is as important as building new highways and
power plants.

Also, to improve the end-user connectivity to the Net, technologies like
ISDN and cable modems must be used. In addition, ISPs (including VSNL)
should be allowed to setup telephone exchanges rapidly to meet growing
user demand. The local dial-up difficulties are what has given an
otherwise-excellent service a bad name. It is also the most visible part
of the service, and phone lines at the local level need to be made
available rapidly.

2. Networking

The next step is for companies to set up connectivity between their
offices. In India, where leased lines are still quite expensive, dial-up
ISDN can become quite a good alternative. Also, the sooner the Internet
backbone becomes available, the easier it will be for corporates to
interconnect offices within India. This is very important — the internal
departments of a company need to be well networked before it begins to
derive significant benefits from the use of Internet technologies.
Intranets and Extranets only become useful if the data network itself is
in place first.

3. Education

The level of awareness about the Internet in India is woefully
inadequate. Difficulties in connecting to the Net and the lack of
“Internet Call Offices” where the Net can be seen, have contributed to
this lack of understanding. The Internet today is a vital
business-to-business communication and commerce medium, and yet it is seen
as just another technology by most companies. National programs for
senior executives to understand the Net are needed. We have to start with
top management, since they are the ones who may have the vision to ensure
adoption across the organisation. Cybercafes need to become more common,
so that the Internet can be experienced easily and in one’s own

4. Content

Content is always the biggest attractor and the primary reason why a
person will use the Net. While Indian newspapers and magazines have made
rapid strides in creating a presence on the Net (newspapers like Deccan
Herald put up their Net editions as early as 2 am), most of the domestic
content available is still not interesting enough. India needs localised
and community-specific content.

The government can be a tremendous contributor in this respect. One
organisation which others can learn from is the Reserve Bank of India: its
site is a veritable treasure trove of information. At a smaller level,
companies too need to digitise their content and make it available on
local servers. Corporate databases and trade information from industry
associations also need to be made available and publicised on the

5. Community

The Indian Internet also needs a feeling of community: an overpowering
reason to connect, share and communicate. Usenet newsgroups were one such
channel in the early days of the Net, and have been complemented by
various chat sites in the recent past. Topic-wise, demographics-wise,
and interest-wise communities need to be built to create a feeling of
togetherness in the vastness of cyberspace. People need online gatherings,
and these virtual communities can help give direction and meaning to the
Net presence for individuals. Publishers and managers of popular websites
should take the lead in coming together to create these virtual
communities for the Indian Internet.

6. Commerce

Finally, an electronic payments system needs to be evolved so that
producers and consumers can go the full distance: get the information,
and complete the transaction. Credit card companies should set-up
real-time verification systems over the Internet, and banks need to set
up debit systems. Contrary to popular perception, the Net is as
safe a medium as you can get: information is sent encrypted over the
network, and cannot be tampered or snooped upon. This will encourage the
small merchants to get online, since the Net will now offer a big plus
over traditional media: the ability to convert interest into commerce.

Big industrial houses need to follow the example of GE’s Trading Network
to move purchases online: the domino effect will again ensure more
companies use the Net for business-to-business commerce.

With bated breadth, India awaits the new Internet policy. Regular reports
in the business papers have ensured little of it remains a secret. The
only unknown is when the announcement will be made. Yet, the Internet
policy and the entry of prospective ISPs will do little for the Indian
Internet industry.

The challenges are more fundamental, and require national and collective
action to ensure that India and the Internet have more in common than
just the first two letters.

Vande Mataram!

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.