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May 27, 1997


The Web's on the house

Salil Murthy in Bombay

The law of the land says Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited is the sole Internet access provider to the Indian masses. But is it? What about 'cyber cafés' which let people get on to the Web for a price?

"They are violating the law," says VSNL's Director (Operations) Amitabh Kumar.

But the café owners are not so sure. When you go to a café you pay for the coffee, the Internet is like the ambient piped music. Get it?

The 'cafés' and 'clubs' have been providing Internet access to individuals and organisations for almost as long as VSNL.

'The subscriber of Gateway Internet Access Service is not allowed to resell the Internet services'. That's 'general terms and conditions' no 5 in VSNL's application form for Internet access. Appears cut and dry; doesn't it?

But the legality of the statement is pegged to one word: 'resell'. Is it 'resell' if an individual or an organisation charges others for the use of a VSNL account? "Most definitely," asserts a legal officer at VSNL.

But is it still a 'resell' if our friend, having registered the account in the name of an organisation, proceeds to enrol people, as members, with the freedom to eat, drink and make merry, and almost incidentally, browse the Web? That's a typical Indian 'cyber club' for you.

Says Amitabh Kumar, "The condition which prevents the user from subletting his access holds good for individuals as well as organisations. However, if a club which subscribes to an Internet account lets its members use it for a time-based fee, it will definitely constitute a violation of our laws."

However, he explains that VSNL has no authority to take action against 'offenders'. The ball, he pleads, is in the Department of Telecommunications' court.

"VSNL regulations for Internet access are framed by DoT, and they alone can take action," he says. Then again, DoT can only take action if a formal complaint is filed by a third party.

It is a common perception that Bombay luxury hotel The Leela's Cyber Café was shut down a year ago in fear of legal action. The Cyber Café then charged Rs 800 an hour for Internet access, a sure violation of DoT regulations.

Photos: Jewella Miranda
THE LEELA: A tiny blue blimp of a computer is all the new Cyber Café
Last week, it was reopened. But this time, just one computer joins a few pool tables, a giant video screen, backgammon and chess boards at The Cyclone discotheque's recreation room - watered down, but still not free.

Shobha Patel, The Leela's marketing communications manager, is emphatic that though a rate for Internet access has not been decided upon, there would most definitely be some tariff. She is not aware of any DoT regulation which restricts resale of Internet access, the terms and conditions listed on the VSNL application form notwithstanding.

Christopher Newbery, The Leela general manager, who denies that the Cyber Café had run into trouble with the authorities a year ago, explains the venture was not really successful and was shut down to be relocated.

Patel says, "Anybody wanting to make use of the Internet facility would need to pay Rs 19,500, which is The Cyclone's annual membership fee, or be a guest of the hotel."

LALCHANDANI: Entrepreneurial energy
The Leela is not the only one. There is the Cyber Club, launched on March 15. It targets a larger audience than the Leela's. Housewives, students, stockbrokers, and "basically anybody who wants to learn about the Internet" is welcome, says owner Raj Lalchandani.

The Cyber Club trains people to use browsers, e-mail and chat programmes. And there are, of course, the obligatory refreshments which cyber-weary travellers pay for.

"I saw a need for something like this, and that is why I started this. The demand is there and I expect business to look up. We plan to expand operations to two more centres in the city and increase the number of computers from 4 to 25 per centre," says Lalchandani.

He, however, takes pains to emphasise that he is not charging members anything for accessing the Internet. "The charges are only membership fees and cover infrastructure costs," he says.

India's software capital, Bangalore, has Coffee Day Cyber Café. Born in November 1996, it already has over 150 Web-savvy Bangloreans pouring in every day. The Amalgamated Bean Coffee Company, which owns the place, asks for Rs 60 for every half hour of Internet access. They have nothing to comment on the DoT regulation against 'reselling' Web access.

Net Café@India is Madras' only cyber cafe. Promoted by Cyberglobe India, an Internet solutions company, it is located on upmarket Cathedral Road. "Net Café@India is wooing students and executives to raise the level of Internet consciousness in the city," says an employee. Here again it's a coffee house and you pay only for food and drink!

New Delhi's The Maurya Sheraton Hotel and Towers has another Cyber Club which also offers video-conferencing facilities. Plans are underway to introduce the Internet phone service too.

The package of Rs 800 per hour for non-guests or the Rs 30,000 annual membership reflects the level of exclusivity they would like to maintain. The figures on the bill are bound to discourage several customers. They too have nothing to say about the DoT regulation.

It is a mystery why DoT is sticking to a regulation it cannot enforce. A regulation which is stunting the obvious enthusiasm for the Web in India.

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