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June 10, 1997


Binary illogic

Salil Murthy in Bombay

In a world where nothing is assured but death and taxes, add one more consolation, the end of VSNL's monopoly over providing access to the Internet in India.

A draft paper on the new Internet policy is already on the drawing table. And if you think that this is too good to be true, you may be right! The powers that be are still not sure about who exactly is framing the new policy and the deadline is just two months away.

Simply put: The paper is supposed to be framed jointly by the Department of Telecommunications and the Department of Electronics under the direction of the Telecom Commission.

But: Here begins a tale of incest and intrigue. One. The Telecom Commission, which has ordered DoT to collaborate with DoE, is actually a cog in the monster machine that DoT is. And the secretary of DoT, by the virtue of his post, is also the chairman of the Telecom Commission. This means that the policy paper which DoT will submit will be reviewed in the Telecom Commission by DoT's own chief. That's the incest part.

Two. The DoT has refused to work in collaboration with the DoE, thereby technically defying the order of its own Telecom Commission. On the other hand the DoE, which by its definition has less to do with matters telecom, is raring to go. If this has not set your head spinning already read on…

Actually, the policy paper was supposed to have been tabled sometime this week. But the one-upmanship between DoT and DoE has now ensured that it will not see the light of day for another two months at least.

A K Mittal, director, customer services, DoT, says "There is no role for the DoE in the paper that we are preparing. It is being formulated exclusively by DoT and will be laid before the Telecom Commission."

He refused to give details of the proposed policy, saying "You will get to know in two months. Why the hurry?"

DoT Secretary, and Telecom Commission Chairman, A V Gokak seems to be the only person now who can explain the mess onstage. But he is unavailable for comment.

But S Ramakrishna, senior director, DoE, is an optimistic soul. He told Rediff On The Net "The paper is being formulated at the direction of the Telecom Commission, and both DoE and DoT are collaborating on it." Is Mittal listening?

Ramakrishna was forthcoming. "We will be looking at the problems that ail the Internet in India. First of all, the number of Internet users in India is, by world standards, very nominal. Even the existing users face a lot of problems involving bandwidth, connectivity and the reliability of their connections. Thirdly, there is the problem of a lack of choice of ISPs (Internet service providers). Most importantly, however, there is no proactive response to customer complaints."

"All this," he says, "boils down to missed opportunities to tap the vast market in India. There have been proposals to allow private companies to become ISPs since January '96, but nothing has come of them. We are pressing towards a consensus between DoT and DoE to open up the market for ISPs."

Earlier, a senior DoE official said "The idea behind the yet-to-be announced Internet policy is that the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited cannot be a regulator as well as a service provider." The government-owned VSNL is currently the sole commercial ISP in the country.

Ramakrishna agrees fully. "VSNL should not be the only commercial provider for Internet access in India." The media is already abuzz with reports of several private companies readying to grab the ISP licenses.

But these happy notes will not do. DoT's Mittal is emphatic that no private companies have applied for licences to become ISPs. "When we have not invited applications, where is the question of their answering?" he demands.

The companies, however, when contacted, have a different story to tell.

HCL Comnet confirmed to Rediff On The Net that it has 'responded' to a DoT 'invitation' to apply for licences to become ISPs. Other companies have done so too, though they are reluctant to give details.

DoT had earlier overruled a suggestion by DoE to allow domestic ISPs direct connectivity to the Net.

"Routing our Internet traffic through VSNL will mean that all the problems with its service will be duplicated on our service. How then can we promise quality service?" pleads a senior executive of a data network company.

Ramakrishna still believes the paper will provide the Internet policy which India sorely needs. "It should be ready in two months. We will be looking at specific guidelines, the licensing fee, domain registration and other sundry details."

He, however, agrees that the road ahead will not be easy. "Traditionally DoT has had no habit of collaboration on policy issues. But we are not here to force ourselves on anyone. The general approach is likely to be to minimise differences in opinion between DoT and DoE. We will identify areas of mutual concurrence and look to enlarge them. Because ultimately only the computer users will suffer."

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