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February 3, 1998


N Vittal

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Global Slum

India's phone density is 1.2%. How will
the Net grow in this telecom wasteland?

The Internet is a classic instance of how technological breakthroughs and social dynamics can produce unpredictable and explosive growth.

Global Slum
Embedded software
    may attract duty

IHS wants to buy
    out India partner

Max Touch is renting
    out cell phones

IL&FS lays Rs 20m
    bet on MRO-Tek

Yet, as a consequence of all the hyperbole about the Internet's growth, the singular fact that the rate is not the same the world over is often overlooked. Worse, the consequences of this disparity are completely missed.

Not all are equal in Marshall McLuhan's Global Village. True, the Internet is fast making international borders less significant but the dividing lines on the map are not superfluous yet. The tremendous growth of the Internet in places where the computer and telecommunication density is good has generated some dynamics of its own. But on islands, peninsulas and continents where the number of phones and computers have not reached critical mass, there is a different tale to tell.

The reality of India makes a good story.

Despite, all the noise about the country's software prowess, the popularity and penetration of information technology in everyday life is abysmal.

The telephone density is hardly 1.2 per cent against the world average of 10. The computer density could be 1 per 1,000 against the world average of 25. Given the figures, how is the Internet likely to fare? The ISP policy has set the ball rolling by allowing private participation in the Web business but is the nation ready?

The numbers for a healthy Internet growth can be achieved only by concentrating on strategies for the spread of telecommunications and computers.

I have been pleading repeatedly for certain policy measures, which could thicken the density of computers and telecommunications.

The first step should be to grant 100 per cent depreciation in the first year itself for any investment made in computers and information systems.

The second step should be to make mandatory, bar-coding of all items liable for excise and sales tax.

The third suggestion is to amend legislation so that computer generated data and computer generated documents are acceptable in a court of law.

This will call for a review of laws like the Indian Evidence Act and other laws relating to taxation, customs and excise. The growth of computing must not be stymied because of the technology's poor legal status.

The term 'cyber laws' is being heard more often during discussions on information technology. But cyber laws should not mean just amendment of the existing laws to give computers more legitimacy.

Cyber laws must be computer-specific too. These will have to be designed to prevent computer crimes and frauds. In fact, computers attract the best brains and many of these are busy breaking and hacking codes.

Protection in the world of computers will have to be sought in both technological and legal terms. In fact, security encryption and privacy are going to be important issues in the emerging world of Internet in India.

After the laws comes the setting up the 'national information highway'. It is a pity that India has all the pieces of the jigsaw pieces at hand and yet little effort has gone into solving the information highway puzzle.

The government's policy was based on a report of the Jalan Committee that was set up to study the issues involved. It was a beginning but I would not give it full marks.

License fee for the Internet service providers has been waived for five years instead of two as decided by the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure. The license period will be for 10 years. This, of course, is welcome. But it would have been better if Internet practices in the United States had been studied and lessons drawn from it. The US, after all, is the driving force behind the Internet phenomenon.

The policy says that the government owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited would give bandwidth (channel for communication traffic) to the Internet service providers. The VSNL, in turn, will have to operate on the guidelines issued by the Department of telecommunications. My question is why should bandwidth be the monopoly of VSNL? What about others like the ERNET of the Department of Electronics or the NICNET of the National Informatics Centre?

If the objective is to encourage pluralism and vigorous growth of Internet services, should India take a restricted view like Henry Ford who declared that his consumers could have a car of any colour as long as it was black!

It is a healthy development that interconnectivity between Internet service providers will be permitted. I hope this means that the present DoT policy which insists that all networks must go through DoT's I-NET has been given up.

However, the policy does score on the declaration that the 2.5-gigabit national information infrastructure, costing Rs 12 billion will be built by DoT.

But the reality is that the government lacks the fund to build the backbone. I hope those who have the resources to invest are allowed to participate and rectify the situation.

The policy does not cover everything. Some specific issues, which require detailed examination, have been left to the cabinet secretary. He is expected to discuss these with departments concerned.

One such issue is the tariff to be charged from customers. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has been set up with the specific authorisation under Section 11 (2) of the TRAI Act to decide on tariff issues.

Why should there be any separate effort for the Internet at all? Why not let the TRAI decide the tariff?

The policy also mentions that the creation of new capacity for transmission by Internet service providers, which it is felt would interfere with the licence system for basic service operators, has to be looked into by the cabinet secretary again.

Obviously, the government is anxious to see that the Internet service provider does not compete with the basic service providers.

I am afraid this anxiety shows that the reality of technology in telecommunications today has not been appreciated.

In fact, the Internet is emerging as a tougher competitor to the old-style telephone service providers. Ultimately, market forces are going to decide who will be the winner. Why should the government prevent this market dynamics from operating in India?

When I was the chairman of the Telecom Commission, the information and broadcasting ministry wanted to utilise the carrier frequencies available for the FM stations for RDS paging. I fully supported the proposal but the then minister was against it, saying it would interfere with the paging licences given by the DoT.

Ultimately, after a six-month delay, both types of licences were introduced.

The same logic will apply so far as Internet services and basic telecom services are concerned. In fact, if Internet telephony is going to be cheaper than normal telephony, why should consumers in India be denied the benefit due to the setting up of artificial restrictions?

The representatives of the various security agencies, it seems, have reservations about international connectivity via Internet service providers.

These agencies also want that the parameters for monitoring equipment should be settled before licences are issued. The fears of the security agencies need to be handled rationally, not emotionally.

When I became was secretary (electronics) in 1990, the only software technology park operating in the country was at Bangalore and was occupied by Texas Instruments of the US. The Intelligence Bureau had insisted that there should be an engineer posted there to monitor daily transmission and take samples for five minutes, for verification.

I had then pointed out to the director, Intelligence Bureau, that in the rest of world, in countries like the US or Germany, there are security agencies but such monitoring is not heard of.

If those countries are safe, why should India be obsessed with security? Finally, the security practice was given up.

Similarly, when I was chairman of the Telecom Commission and was trying to introduce paging services in 1994, a security agency had claimed that as there are smugglers in Surat and terrorists in Amritsar, India should not permit paging services in those cities.

I pointed out that telephone services were available in these cities which are being used by smugglers and terrorists and paging is based on the telephone system.

That objection too was overruled. Our security agencies must find out what is the practice in the US and adopt the same here instead of insisting on extra investment for monitoring and control. Excessive control of Internet operations may make them uneconomical in the country.

Another healthy development arising out of the policy is the recommendation that the Indian Railways and the Power Grid Corporation should be free to lease their spare telecom capacity for data transmission to DoT. They have also been allowed to sell excess bandwidth to DoT licensees for basic as well as value-added services or any other uses including Internet connectivity.

Here's an example to illustrate the half-hearted nature of the policy. Private parties have been allowed data transmission but while transmitting within a telecom circle or between circles, voice transmission has been banned. That is to be the exclusive right of DoT and its licensees.

It seems that DoT, on examining the relevant license conditions for basic services, noticed that certain legal issues merit further consultations with the ministry of law.

I have been consistently arguing that the restrictions put on inter-circle communication has made the basic telephony service uneconomical. It is high time that long-distance calls are permitted to the private sector even though for official consumption, we can talk about the 1999 and 2004 as dates for a review of the policy on national and international long-distance calls respectively.

The government has made a good beginning by announcing the Internet policy. But the policy needs to be urgently revised and liberalised further to ensure that Internet services grow fast enough. Otherwise we will have an Internet policy but no worthwhile Internet services.

The point to remember is that the Internet should not become the toy of the country's elite but should be widely available as an effective tool for students, businessmen, artists, researchers and scientists in India.

Related news story: After an interminable wait, the ISP policy is official

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check | Spectrum analysis

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