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May 21, 1997


N Vittal

The jigsaw pieces

What are the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which is the national information highway. Once we have counted and arranged them all, it would be easier to attempt the task:

[a] The Department of Telecommunications must give up its insistence on the VSNL alone being the interface with Intelsat as the administrative management domain.

We must permit at least other government organisations like the NIC and the Department of Electronics to have this facility.

NIC has already been empowered for this through a cabinet decision though I do not know whether it is operational.

[b] An information highway is ultimately a network of networks. Thanks to DoT's insistence that all the networks must go through its network ­ the INET -- we are by policy, restricting the growth of networks in the country.

This restriction of DoT on the direct linking of networks must be removed immediately if we want to see a national information highway in India.

[c] The major bottleneck for anyone who has tried to access the Internet in India is bandwidth. The future of information technology depends on three revolutions: the revolution in glass, the revolution in air and the revolution in sand.

The revolution in air refers to the breakthroughs in digital compression and wireless technology. The revolution in sand refers to the electronics revolution based on silicon found in the sands. The revolution in glass refers to the enormous bandwidth potential of the optic fibre.

What we should have in the country is a nationwide optic fibre network for communication, not only voice but also data, multimedia and so on. In other words, we have to create the information highway backbone with a wide bandwidth.

[d] The best agency for providing this backbone is the railways, which has 63,000 kilometres of track. If optic fibre networks are laid along these railway lines then the whole issue involving cumbersome processes like land acquisition can be overcome.

The railways need not invest a rupee in this effort. All that is needed is a government decision at the Railway Board level that they would permit laying an optic fibre network along the tracks. The railways, of course, must get a reasonable return for making the facility available.

The amount involved for putting in place the optic fibre along the railway tracks would run into thousands of billions of rupees. No single agency or department has money of that sort.

This is where the private sector must be encouraged to take chunks of distances and lay an optic fibre network and get economic returns. I understand that the Hindujas wanted to introduce the optic fibre cable network along the railway lines in Bombay so that they could provide cable television service of a higher order. This got stuck up because of the railway ministry's perception that the railway line can be made available only for an emergency or the purposes laid down by the rules.

A time has now come for us to look beyond the century-old railway traditions and prepare ourselves for the Twenty First Century. In fact, the railways represented the Nineteenth Century communication revolution in the country. For the Twentieth Century, laying down the optic fibre network along the railway tracks as a part of the national information infrastructure will be an appropriate step.

[e] An equally effective agency for a national network can be the power grid whose infrastructure can be used by the service providers to build an optic fibre backbone.

[f] The revolution in air relates to the use of digital technology and wireless in local loop technology which have made optimum use of wireless technology. We are on the eve of a technological miracle launched by Dr Jhunjhunuwala of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, who, in collaboration with Analog Devices of the United States, has developed wireless in local loop technology.

This technology has been tried in Madras and its price is only a third of the price of the existing wireless in local loop technologies.

I am told there is a lot of humming and hawing going on in the Department of Telecommunications about this technology.

It is here we have to depend on the private sector to make this technology benefit the people. For example, Reliance Industries has got the licence for basic voice services in Gujarat. If Reliance were to use Dr Jhunjhunuwala's wireless in local loop technology, and lay down the optic fibre network along railway tracks, it would put to good use the unutilised earth station of the Gandhinagar Software Technology Park and get a direct link to Intelsat, at least a healthy competition in telecom services would have been introduced.

Gujarat, as a leading industrial state, can show the way to a national information highway.

[g] All the members of parliament get Rs 10 million every year for development work in their constituencies under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme. This money can be used for providing computers in schools, and computers, modems and printers in colleges. We can, in this manner, at least, launch an information footpath in Gujarat and the national information highway will become an operational reality for every schoolboy and girl in Gujarat. Then what can be done in Gujarat can be done in other states too.

[h] There may be doubting Thomases who would say: "How can we have computers in all schools when even blackboards are not there, when there is even no regular power supply?" Here I would invite your attention to an exciting experiment conducted by Kantisen Shroff of Excel Industries, Bombay.

In Kalali village, six km from Baroda, using four bullocks yoked to an oil-press type device, he has generated power. He calls this Nandi Urja (bullock electricity). I have seen the operation of electric lamps, pumping of water and chaffing, all done by this electricity generator.

According to Shroff, the 100 million bullocks in our country can generate 40,000 MW of power. In fact, this concept can be used in all villages so that at least the village schools which are spreading knowledge and living up to the ancient maxim of tamasoma jyotirgamaya will not be in darkness and will never have shortage of electricity for running the computers.

[i] What about states where there are no private basic communication service operators? I have been arguing that we should give up the duopoly approach and go straight away for a multiple player strategy which is now taking place in the United Kingdom and Australia. In Japan the service providers are of two types, Type I and Type II. Type I are those who provide the basic infrastructure like optic fibre and the voice telephony services. Type II are those who are providing value added services and less capital intensive telecom services. We should, plan for an explosive growth of Type I and II players and this is eminently possible.

[j] Sam Pitroda, the founder of the telecom revolution in India, is today heading WorldTel, in which financial institutions like GE Capital and Natwest of Britain are partners under the overall inspiration of the ITU.

We may try to see whether WorldTel will be in a position to fund such projects. In fact WorldTel has offered to provide $2 billion to West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala to set up a basic voice telephony infrastructure. There are no private sector bidders in these states so far.

So here are all the pieces of the puzzle to build the national information highway, which when ready will by definition bring the global network revolution to India. It will ensure that the country not lag behind in the 21st century.

Now the only question is: Do we have the imagination and determination to implement this agenda?

N Vittal is chairman of the Public Enterprises Selection Board. However, he is best known for his tenure as the secretary of the Telecom Commission and the many revolutionary policies he introduced.

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