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June 24, 1998


N Vittal

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Moore, Metcalf & Gelder

Three gentlemen. Three laws. Find out what
it will take to build India's super I-way

Information Technology is once again on the political radar. The 'national agenda for governance' talks of leveraging telecommunications and computer systems and the prime minister's taskforce on information technology is set to submit its report by June 30.

The taskforce report is expected to lead to the building of the National Information Infrastructure. The NII would provide nationwide communication links using satellites, optic fibre cables and wireless technologies.

The more talk there is of NII, the more I am reminded of Mark Twain's observation about the weather. "Everybody seems to be talking about it but nobody seems to be able to do anything about it!"

The most exciting thing happening in computer networks and telecommunications today is the Internet. The government, realising the significance of the Internet and its dependence on the NII, had come out with an Internet service provider policy.

However, before the policy could lead to the proliferation of the Web in the country, it was challenged before the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

The TRAI stayed the policy, citing Section 11 (1) of the TRAI Act, which clearly states that the TRAI should have been consulted and its recommendations taken into account by the government before it announced its ISP policy.

The government had set up a committee under the then Planning Commission member secretary, Dr Bimal Jalan. Based on his committee's report, the ISP policy was formed.

When the TRAI sought a copy of the Jalan Committee Report, the Department of Telecommunications pointed out that the report, being a part of cabinet papers, is confidential and refused to part with it.

And this proved fatal: No Jalan Committee report to TRAI meant no recommendations from TRAI and no recommendation from TRAI meant no Internet policy!

Fortunately, we have a Delhi High Court. It was approached by DoT. The court has granted another stay. And now, at its own risk, the DoT will be able to license ISPs.

The Jalan Committee had recommended that, in addition to DoT, other agencies of the government like the railways, state electricity boards and power grid corporations, might also provide bandwidth.

But when you are talking technology, politics and legal hassles should not blind you to the three laws that drive networks and the whole universe of computing.

The first is Moore's Law.

It states that every 18 months, the number crunching capacity of computers double and the price for the same performance halves.

This is one reason why computers become cheaper and more powerful by the day.

The second is Metcalf's Law.

It says that if there are n computers in a network then its capacity increases by 2n.

The third is Gelder's Law.

It relates to bandwidth, which is vital for any network. The capacity to transmit data or pictures depends on the extent of bandwidth. Better, the road, better the transport. Wider the bandwidth, better the network, it concludes.

Bandwidth is the method of connecting computers, either by cable or optic fibre or wireless techniques.

Gelder's Law states that bandwidth will increase three folds every year for the next 25 years.

The optimism is justified because of the tremendous bandwidth capacity of optic fibres.

Although satellite technology has developed tremendously and there would be about 500 communication satellites around the world by 2000, the bandwidth of a single optic fibre cable would be far greater than all those 500 satellites put together!

What does all this mean for India?

It is true that we are all talking about the Internet and the NII. But will we be able to benefit from them? The question can be answered if we can tell how we will be able to increase India's computer and telephone densities.

The computer density of the country is only 0.7 per 1,000 people against the world average of 25. The telephone density is only 1.6 telephones for 100 people against the world average of 10. Add to this, the country's tendency to block entry of new technologies generated rapidly by the force of the three laws I discussed.

For instance, the Internet policy says that though telephony can be provided via the Internet, private ISPs will not be allowed to use it.

What is the idea of preventing by policy a telephone technology that is much cheaper than the current one? It is true that Internet telephony may not be of the same standard as the prevailing voice telephony but why not just allow the technology to come in and let market dynamics operate?

This example should be enough to explain why NII is going to take a long time unless we do something different: Learn from the past.

Technology has come to India only when there has been a necessity. This is the 'N' part of NII.

We were denied defence technology and that led to the development of indigenous missile, nuclear energy and space technologies. We were denied supercomputers and that led to the creation of our parallel computing machines in the labs of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing. Pakistan attacked us in Kutch in 1965 and consequently border roads were built. Only when there is a necessity, do we succeed. We have to realise that world trade is moving fast and if we want to have a share of it, we must increase the velocity of our business too.

We have to adopt computer technologies like 'electronic data interchange' that are used in businesses. For instance, Singapore has reduced the time taken in handling port documents from three days to 15 minutes by deploying EDI!

In India too, a very valiant effort is being made by the Ministry of Finance's Department of Revenue to introduce EDI in Delhi, Bombay and elsewhere. We must watch how successful this will be.

Then there's the necessity on the education front. India is like a snake whose head is in the 20th Century and the tail in the 17th Century. We have a multi-speed India. Can we make it a single-speed India, especially now, when we want to emerge as an economic superpower in the next century?

It means that we must have massive investments coming into this area and we should have a national mission to build an NII.

One thing the government does not have is money. We may be able to come in with plans and project the requirements in different areas like the common minimum programme projection that would require Rs 7 trillion over 10 years to build infrastructure. But where is the money?

I would prefer an alternative strategy, which has proved successful in India. I refer to our very happy experience in cable TV. Cable TV was a technology that was available. There was a need among bored Doordarshan audiences that could be filled. Street corner entrepreneurs started providing connectivity despite violating some ancient DoT rules like the one about not crossing the road.

The net result was that before the government could wake up to the situation and come up with some regulations for cable TV, it had penetrated millions of homes.

For NII too, we will have to think of a similar strategy. If we want NII in India, we should have non-conventional individual initiative. This is the 'II' part of NII.

How is this initiative to come up? First, consumer-oriented non-governmental organisations should go to the Supreme Court and get a decision challenging the monopoly enjoyed by the government under Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act on the ground that it violates the freedom of speech of Indian citizens under Article 19 of the Constitution.

As far as the broadcasting aspect is concerned, the Supreme Court has already given a decision, pointing out that the government can only regulate the access to airwaves and this has resulted in the Broadcasting Bill, which is under consideration of the government.

What is true of one-way broadcasting is equally true of two-way communication, that is telecommunication. There is no reason why monopoly should be maintained.

Secondly, the National Telecom Policy has a provision for pilot projects under paragraph 11.

All entrepreneurs who have the capacity to start new services must be able to move for pilot project under this provision. For instance, why not have wireless telephony as a part of a pilot project of the Internet service providers?

Why not allow railways and the other departments to also provide various services as pilot projects?

There are very interesting proposals before the NDDB to set up what is called the community Internet centres.

This, among other things, visualises putting computers in public call offices so that even a person who can't afford a phone or a computer can browse the Web.

Just as cable TV caught on by depending on demand for TV services, we must build NII by depending on the technology available.

Otherwise, we can wait endlessly for various committees and commissions to go into the issues. By the time any development takes place on ground, the world would have moved on to the next excitement on the technology front.

Therefore, the only route to get NII in India is through non-conventional individual initiatives.

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check | Spectrum analysis | Global Slum | Rebooting democracy | Catalysts of change | Educational emergency | A card for all seasons

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