Dataquest 35 Years: Building A Network Into Cyberspace- A Glance Back

By: Brijendra K Syngal,Sr Principal, Dua Consulting

It was few days into the beginning of new millennium 2000, we were roaming around streets of Jodhpur, when curiosity drew us to a shop named ‘Maharani’ which had long back started selling its wares to the top shops on the high streets of London. The selling included exchange of designs, colours etc. We, too, as tourists got attracted to some exquisite stuff that they were selling. I remember giving my credit card to the young owner of the store after my purchase, at which she asked if I was the one who brought internet to India. She hastily added and told me how they have been able to expand their business in London and elsewhere due to the availability of the Internet.

The turnaround time from concept to delivery of some six months had come down to days, the physical visits of Sir Terence Conran the owner of Habitat Stores reduced from 4 in a year to just one or so, that too out of curiosity. I was overwhelmed to see, that in a span of five years of bringing in Internet into India how a vision to ‘connect everyone’, which was led by Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), had turned into metamorphic opportunities. My eyes swelled, my family delighted. The same story got repeated at another antique shop outside Umaid Bhawan Hotel at Jodhpur.

INDIA’S KNOWLEDGE BASED SKILLS, AND VSNL STORY

The connectivity to the world, save India, had its fits and start from the early eighties, taking some shape when
Rajiv Gandhi swept to power in 1984, followed by surfacing of Sam Pitroda in 1986 or so. It has been quite a journey. The duo asked me in 1988-89 to consider returning to India. That means to give up a well-paid UN assignment at London. That was a journey, which began on 26 June 1991- the challenge to connect India to the world in Cyberspace. Domestically, we had some pioneering network of ERNET in 1986 for connecting scientific community at IITs and IISc, managed by Department of Electronics and my friend Dr Ramani at NCST, with a low capacity leased line for international connectivity.  In terms of international connectivity to connect men and machines, in the eighties, there was struggle except a dedicated earth station for Texas Instruments at Bangalore at `45 Lakh a 64 kb/s lease line to Bedford in UK. With no Digital submarine cable and analogue satellite connectivity, it was a challenge to connect India to the world.

I remember my first meeting within a week of my arrival with the 15-20 doyens, NRN, Saurabh, Ramani, Ashank et al of IT industry at my offices led by the ever smiling ebullient Late Dewang Mehta and my school mate sounding board Late Prem Shivdasani (Founding Chairperson of NASSCOM). I met the industry captains at Bangalore and other centres to assess the requirements. The potential was huge but there was reticence, tall or real talk. These meetings set the agenda for me. The battle cry was connectivity yesterday and at affordable cost today. The twin challenges required investments in submarine cables and tackling DOT for affordable pricing of leased lines. The investment in submarine cable SEA-ME-WE 2 required some $110 mn in the days of severe Foreign Exchange (FE) crunch when India had just week’s foreign exchange to meet our own country’s requirements.

My first meeting with Sam was disastrous when he said he is not interested in these mega projects when a common man does not have a phone service, the subscriber trunk dialing (STD) is pathetic, (STD was allegedly subscriber trying and dying)  and the precarious foreign exchange situation, my riposte “what about your software export”? There was silence for 5 minutes. The project had already languished for 30 months in DOT’s bureaucracy, and his intransigence to invest. Finally, he said make a presentation. That is a story I hate to say, but will say; on the day of presentation in August 1991 he was gone, to surface again only in 2014, 14 years later.

We got the investment approved “Sans Sam” with a condition that both FE and funding will come out of VSNL’s own resources. The tariffs were revised downwards to between `18 to `24 lakh, depending upon your location. Texas was reduced to `15 lakh from captive `45 lakh. We ploughed along to provide the first 64 kb/s circuit on 12 January 1992 from Chennai to Chicago for John Deere Corporation for Satyam Computers, and there was no looking back. The exports stood at some $60 mn in those days began to increase exponentially reaching some
$3 bn in 1997-98 and now at $150 bn, employment increased from 40,000 to 6,00,000 in seven years. The industry derived confidence begun bidding for off shore projects, DOE kick started their Software Technology Parks of India (STPIs) project with dedicated earth stations, which we assisted in initial installations. The availability of connectivity was not a constraint, submarine cable got commissioned in 1994, providing further boost to latency free connectivity.  Investments in other cable systems followed like FLAG (Fibre Link Around the Globe), and subsequent cables like SAFE, SEA-ME-WE 3, SEA-ME-WE 4.

KEY LEARNINGS

We had grown out of a VSNL – then a wholly government owned international trunk call carrier company – providing Gateway Internet Access System (GIAS), simple public internet service, providing a speed of 9.6kbps only. The second landmark achievement was on the eve of India’s Independence Day, on 14th August 1995; the commercial Internet service was made available in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai immediately and to Pune and Bangalore by the end of 1995. Users from 93 other locations could connect through the Department of Telecommunications’ I-NET, an X.25 network accessed through leased lines or at a concessional dial-up rate from almost anywhere. The connection between VSNL and MCI (later Verizon Business) in the USA started with multiple 64kbps links, which was planned for growth into T1 – then high connectivity leased line to faster Internet – by the end of the year.

The service was plagued by obnoxiously high tariff, several hardware and network issues. I publicly apologized and took responsibility for the issues. We had not conducted a proper survey of the potential demand for the service. The modems used by VSNL were of poor quality, and often would disconnect due to 3 minute metering beep sound. The connections also faced junction issues when users attempted to connect between DOT exchanges. VSNL had designed each line to handle 30 customers at a time, which would quickly swell to full capacity. VSNL invested `2-2.5 crore on the launch. When I recalled that launch in 2015, I described the amount as “pathetic”, admitting publicly then in 1995 that I had goofed.

There were lighter moments too, “yeh kya ashleelta faila di hai apne (What is this vulgarity),” thundered a voice on the telephone. It was midnight and I received the call, checked the time. On the other side was Sukh Ram, the then telecom minister, who was referring to free pornography available on the Internet. This was late 1995, the beginning of the ‘connected era’ in India. I had to tell him that I provide access, but the use it is put to is an individual choice, though I assured him of blocking such sites; a cat and mice game.

Despite the issues, VSNL’s Internet service garnered 10,000 subscribers within the first 6 months of the launch. The company invested `10-15 crore to re-design the service. The Internet service got a boost in popularity after a successful demo at the NASSCOM meeting at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai in 1996. VSNL’s booth demonstrating the capabilities of the internet received a large number of visitors, causing stampede at times; requiring crowd control.  Today there are more than 400 mn users across India.  Internet connectivity is now a necessity next to Roti, Kapda and Makan.

The improvement in basic dial services was not lost sight of, because that provided the bread and butter resources. From woefully inadequate international junctions at some 2000 in 1991 a step increase was made to 16,000 by middle 1992, to provide delightful customer experience for international calls.  That I would dare say set the scene of DIGITAL India

POST-VSNL INDIA

Having provided that base, where no one dared venture and the rocking money machine that we created at VSNL, time was not far for a crusade to break the monopoly of VSNL. Finally, in 2002 the long distance sector was opened up, when Tata Communication bought 45% stake in VSNL – India has moved to ‘an always on internet connection’ using a variety of technologies like dial-up, coaxial cables, Ethernet, ISDN, 3G and 4G to access internet in the country. Telecom sector, in general, has seen a substantial level of improvement in terms of connectivity, ease of access, portability, consumer choice and prices.

The introduction of smartphones has resulted in the proliferation of the Over the Top (OTT) services, which are predominantly Internet services delivered by an IP-VPN service provider as opposed to carrier’s own access network. Very recently, Reliance Jio launched a packet switched network as compared to other access service providers, which are still using the circuit switched network. The packet switched network allows sending voice telephony over a packet switch network – i.e. the type of network at which data is transported. The present government’s focus on digital connectivity through increased investment in the rural connectivity, public Wi-Fi facilities, software technology parks, digital payments infrastructure etc. has further increased the focus on connectivity in the country.

But, there is still a lot more to do.  Akai Technologies’ State of Internet First Quarter 2017 report points out that India ranks 89th globally in connection speeds with an average speed of 6.5Mbps as compared to global average connection speed at  7.2Mbps. A 2016 Internet and Mobile Association Report pointed out that Urban India with an estimated population of 444 mn already has 269 mn (60%) using the Internet. Rural India, with an estimated population of 906 mn as per 2011 census, has only 163 mn (17%) Internet users and of the total internet users in India, 48% are still on narrowband i.e. they have download speeds of less than 512 kbps, which means that the average India speed in Akai report is just indicative of speeds in certain urban pockets. As of May 2017, tele-density in urban India stands at 172.28% and rural tele-density stands at 57.55%. All these statistics show that the boom that huge investments in infrastructure had supported in the 90s and early period of 2000s has not KEPT UP PACE WITH THE NEED OF THE MODERN INDIA.

STATUS OF BHARATNET

The ambitious BharatNet to provide affordable100 mbps to each village, conceived in 2011 to be completed by 2015 at a cost of some twenty thousand crore to wire up the country is stuttering along. At the time of keying in this article, some 1/3 Gram Panchayats (GPs) have been connected out of some 2, 60,000, while the cost has gone up to `50K crore and completion by 2019. The DOT does not believe in “Application of Technology to Reach out to the Masses”. They gave a go by to the use of satellites to create points of presence in remote areas, and providing last mile access by myriads of wireless technologies. Some of the multinationals too have an agenda to continue to misguide.

WAY AHEAD

The technology is evolving each day, applications are pouring in, innovations abound, Internet of things, men to machines and vice-versa, machines to machines, and the end does not seem in sight. The 64 kb/s of 1991 is scoffed at by the millennials, as a myth.

Certainly, while there is an urgent need to further invest substantially in the telecom infrastructure to address these deficiencies, the unsustainable telecom debt at ~`5 Lakh Crore has made it impossible for various telecom companies to aid the government in its efforts for Digital India. It is high time that both the government and the private players own up their faults and move forward to pick up the telecom growth where it was left a few years back. Transparency, Ease of Business, Application of Technology and involvement of all stakeholders in the decision making process are the required solutions. It is only when all the stakeholders will come together that we will be able to achieve Digital India dream and make India a more connected place to be in.

I feel satisfied to have laid the foundations of Digital India, adding to GDP, Opportunities, Challenges, Innovations for improvement in the quality of life of each and every citizen with a firm belief that I ventured into a tomorrow in 1991 that I knew little about, but turned out to be a realisable dream.

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