MUMBAI (December 25): As 1996 comes to an end, India’s Internet remains in a state of slow and steady growth. The much-awaited boom is yet to happen — whether it is individuals going in for Internet accounts, corporates going in for web sites or organizations building Intranets. As of now, 1997 does not promise to be much different. India needs more and more of us to be on the Internet. But what are the incentives we need? How can there be 100,000 Indian households and companies on the Net by the end of next year (up from about 20,000 now)? How can this figure go to 1 million by 2000, and 10 million by 2005?
I have said this in the past but nothing seems to change. The entry barrier of Rs 15,000 for a TCP/IP account is extremely high. It is more than what we would pay for a colour TV. Browsing hours should be packaged in lower granularities. Still better, there should be monthly billing for usage. The tariffs for leased lines are also extraordinarily high, and need to come down if companies are going to think seriously about building Intranets on VSNL’s Internet service. Also, if the entry barrier in terms of pricing is reduced, more users will go in for the TCP/IP account, which is good for VSNL and the end-user.
We need a cost-effective high-speed network connecting Indian cities. VSATs cannot really be used for bandwidth-hungry Intranet applications, unless one replicates data at each centre. A Rs 15+ lakh investment (for a humble 64 Kbps) for using VSNL’s GIAS service makes it difficult to even think about Intranets in India, when one considers that most of the cost is recurring on an annual basis. I don’t think India is yet in the `golden age’ of networking. Indian companies need to use cost-effective public networks to build their private networks. Then see how the networking business takes off.
Leased lines also serve one more purpose: of providing Internet connectivity to multiple people at one go. Once this happens, the user base starts multiplying rapidly. There is therefore good reason for the costs to be brought down. It is self-defeating for us to keep costs high, especially when India has more international bandwidth to the Internet than is being used. In addition, organisations wanting leased lines should gets these with 30-45 days. Microwave can be used for the last leg, wherever possible.
Multiple Access Providers
India can definitely do with multiple Internet access providers. But it has to be a level playing field. Even though there has been speculation that the field will be opened up to private players, my fear is that not only will the licence fees be so high that it will be almost unviable, but also that everyone will have to go through VSNL in which case the wholesaler is also in the retail business. It’s a tough competitive battle to win. VSNL’s service has improved tremendously, but it is a game of numbers: we have to get more domestic users online if the Internet industry has to grow and the Internet becomes mainstream in India.
Access providers should bundle free samples with every PC/Modem sold. This way, we can piggyback on the PC boom and the initial trial period comes with no hassle. Consumers need to spend time on the Internet and the process of getting connectivity must be easy and fast.
The few CyberCafes that are open in India seem to be doing good business, but they are still quite expensive. We need the equivalent of Internet Call Offices (perhaps these could be started in the places where the VSNL offices are), where people can walk in, check email on their way home, take print-outs, and do a quick browse for specific information. Indians are not yet sold on the Internet, and yet most people who do actually see it, do decide to go in for it. The problem: actually surfing the Web is a non-trivial exercise if you do not have an Internet account.
One of the bigger barriers that we will need to surmount in India is that of language. We must have Indian companies providing support via the Web front-end in languages other than English. No one else is going to do this for us.
This Christmas, one of the hottest selling items in the US is a WebTV, which makes the Web just another channel on the TV, and makes surfing a breeze. This service is not available nationally yet, but it has the potential of bring in a huge audience once it is rolled out. In India, cable is available in more than 12 million households. Perhaps the cable companies might be interested in exploring this option.
Content and Services
Digital content from India is slowly becoming available: most of the leading Indian dailies now have a web presence. But this has to be grown to get more and more companies offering useful services through the Internet also. Why cannot I check airline and railway timetables, why cannot I get a live stock feed (maybe, delayed 15 minutes to protect the huge investments made by the brokers), why cannot I search for newspaper archives? Why can’t more Indian companies offer their balance sheets as Excel or Lotus spreadsheets through the Internet? Useful Indian content is still quite limited.
For services, one needs the ability to collect money digitally. Indian banks and credit card companies need to form a task force to ensure that by mid next-year, we will be able to do credit card transactions via the Internet. Contrary to opinion, this will be a lot safer than handing the card to a waiter in a restaurant who disappears with it for a few minutes. We need to be able to make and pay for purchases online. This is going to be one of the bigger barriers to surmount if electronic commerce is to take off in India.
The ideas described above are just a few to speed up the deployment in India and get more consumers online. Companies need to think through the impact of the Internet. Intranets and Extranets can be used for a wide variety of applications. A project which my company did recently for NFDC is one such example. NFDCNet, which is expected to go online in January, will allow advertising agencies to book ads on Doordarshan programmes via the Internet. NFDC is taking a leased line to the Internet. Agencies can use their Web browser to do queries and book ads, from anywhere in the country. Applications like this, which link an organisation with its suppliers/customers, help is widening the reach of the Net as well as saving considerable costs for the organisation.