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June 24, 1999


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Multiple-Choice Answer: Within six days, private ISPs will get to pick a gateway of their preference. Priya Ganapati

Within six days, Indian Internet service providers will finally be able to set up their own gateway, completely independent of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, the government owned telecommunications monopoly.

Email this story to a friend. What this means is not just competition for VSNL but also a worldwide choice for Indian ISPs, who can now decide how to route internationally the online traffic of their subscribers.

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Amitabh Singhal, secretary, Internet Service Providers Association of India, told Rediff that the security guidelines necessary for private ISPs to set up their own gateways would be announced in a week.

However, this could merely be wishful thinking on part of Singhal. For in the same breath, he points out that the guidelines have not come through though the ISP policy was announced over six months ago.

The reason behind Singhal's optimism is the fact that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has taken charge of the communications portfolio after Jagmohan was relieved of his office as the telecommunications minister.

Singhal hopes that the Prime Minister's Office would be quick to lay down the guidelines required for security clearances. He is ensuring that the PMO takes action on the files that are gathering dust for the last six months.

"I am planning to get in touch with the PMO sometime in the week. Now that the Honourable PM himself is in charge I hope for quicker action on the issue," he said.

Private ISPs are thrilled

The announcement of security guidelines will finally establish the conditions that private ISPs would have to meet before they can start their own gateways or tie up with other international gateway providers.

Gautam Godse, director, Weikfield Mnemonics Limited, the country's first private ISP, explains what the announcement means to private ISPs.

"We'll have a choice. We can compare and evaluate the different gateway options available. If we are given this choice then we can ask the gateway providers to connect us anywhere. Today we cannot decide how our traffic flows. Suppose I want to peer with the Palo Alto exchange, I can make that choice. I have a certain amount of flexibility," he gushes.

Singhal seconds Godse. "We continue to be dependent on VSNL for their gateway. Once private gateways come up ISPs will be able to improve services significantly. However, the guidelines have been lying at the cabinet level for clearance since February 1999," he complains.

According to Singhal, the delay in clearing the security guidelines is because the cabinet cannot decide upon the "suitable monitoring mechanisms" referred to in the task force's report. He adds that the cabinet is also undecided on the exact security implications of allowing private ISPs to have their own gateways.

The first report of the National Task Force on IT and Software Development says that: 'The monopoly of the VSNL on international gateway for Internet shall be withdrawn and authorised public/government organisations will be allowed to provide Internet gateway access directly without going through VSNL gateways. Private ISPs are allowed to provide such gateways after obtaining defence clearance. Suitable monitoring mechanisms will be put in place to take care of security considerations.'

N Seshagiri, member-convener of the taskforce, explains his compulsions for including the clause. "The main point then was that the defence ministry and the home ministry were concerned about the security hazards of allowing ISPs to set up their own gateways. It was only to see that antinational activities by organisations like ISI (the Pakistani counter-espionage agency, Inter Services Intelligence) are not encouraged," he said.

Seshagiri clarifies that the term "monitoring mechanisms" in the taskforce report refers only to the security conditions already mentioned in the licence form for ISPs.

But Singhal is unhappy over DoT's role. "For the ISPs, DoT is the central clearing point. However, we are able to get no information from them about the status of private gateways for ISPs," he complains.

Seshagiri has his answer ready. "We wanted to make it easy for ISP's to get clearance. So, we brought in DoT as a single clearing agency to avoid any delays. But I don't understand why this delay is taking place," he says.

Later, Seshagiri hinted at vested interests. "There should be no delay. If there is any delay then it is artificial. If they make up their minds then there would be no delay," he chides.

Seshagiri promises to personally get involved in the issue. "Now that you have brought this to my notice I'll take care of it. I will look into the matter," he told Rediff.

VSNL prepares for competition

All this could translate into bad news for VSNL. Private gateways could ensure the migration of its ISP clientele and abort its mission to become the ISP to ISPs.

However, there is no need for VSNL to panic yet. With its existing infrastructure and low rates for gateways it is well equipped to take on competition.

ISPs too are willing to give VSNL a second chance. But they are clear that it needs to get its act together on two fronts...

  1. VSNL has to improve its public relations and marketing effort.
  2. It needs to spruce up technical infrastructure.
Industry watchers too agree that VSNL has one of the best infrastructure in place with extremely competitive rates to match. But it suffers from an image problem and is a public relations nightmare.

Godse told Rediff, "VSNL will be the first to benefit if private gateways are allowed. They are better than anyone else. Even if given the option to set up our own gateways, I would still stick to VSNL. I have a certain amount of rapport with them and I am comfortable with them now. But they need to get better on some fronts."

Amitabh Kumar, acting chairman and managing director, VSNL, realises this more than anyone else does.

Kumar is aware of the constant criticism of VSNL by the Internet Service Providers Association of India, the apex body of private ISPs.

A few months ago, the ISPAI had filed a written complaint against VSNL with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. The complaint alleged that VSNL was obstructing the operations of private ISPs by not providing them sufficient bandwidth.

Kumar has now found out a way out of the constant friction with ISPAI: If you can't beat them join them.

VSNL plans to become a member of ISPAI! Kumar hopes that this will put an end to ISPAI's incessant complaints against VSNL.

Kumar also hopes to hold a dialogue with other ISPs to sort out their problems and in the process project a friendlier image of VSNL.

But he has his limitations. He is working under restrictions on pricing and strategy imposed upon VSNL by TRAI and the Department of Telecommunications.

Kumar firmly rules out any further reduction in the tariff rates of gateways provided by VSNL.

"We have already discounted prices a lot. We have brought it down to the level suggested by TRAI. For instance, internationally a 2 MBPS line costs around Rs 2 crore (Rs 20 million). But we provide the same lines for Rs 40 lakh (Rs 4 million). The pricing is going very hard in the market today," Kumar reveals.

Godse agrees with Kumar. "In terms of prices there would not be too much of a difference between VSNL and other gateway providers. But the most important thing would be that ISPs could choose the bandwidth they want. Today we can't change the amount of bandwidth as per the requirement. But that will change. Bandwidth will be available on demand," he said.

For the dial-up subscriber all this is good news. The cost of setting up their own gateways is going to be only a little expensive in the beginning. Most ISPs plan to absorb this as part of their infrastructure costs and will not pass it on to the consumer.

VSNL is also looking at Asian countries like Singapore, Japan and Thailand to connect to their backbone Internet exchanges. This will give better connectivity options to VSNL and thus help in saving costs incurred in routing traffic through expensive long distance lines.


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