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|February 20, 1999||
"It is a pretty futile game to censor the Internet... unless you are living under a dictator. And even then, you can't really censor the Net."
Ouch! That must have hurt VSNL. After all, does it not cut out multimedia content to the student community?
And if we heard a yesss through clenched teeth, I am sure we will hear a resounding YES! for the neat little service that allows students to surf their Rs 500 sasta shell accounts and get the feel of the full-fledged dirty money Rs 9,000 all-multimedia TCP/IP account!
There are no two ways about it: This is naked subversion. But have you ever tasted the power of the dark side? Pawan did.
That was when he and friends set up Sense/NET, a service that allows shell account have-nots to thumb their collective noses at Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited.
Back from Holland
The 33-year-old Holland-born Pawan found himself in New Delhi one day. "I have had my education in Holland but my parents decided to come back to India about five years ago. I was ready as I thought that the Net is not going to make a difference as to where you live."
By the way, that 'Dr' prefix is a derivative of the 'PhD' suffix. "In plasma physics," he reveals reluctantly.
Pawan, 33, logs on to a New Delhi BBS and meets Vipul Ved Prakash, 23, cryptologist. Vipul then meets Ashish, 48, who was judging a computer competition.
Internet time, or not, that's three generations. But minds can be timeless and a friendship brew into a company.
General Logic Inc
"We came up with the idea of forming a company and realised that the Net is the way to go," explains Pawan. Originally called Planet India, General Logic Inc now offers site hosting, security, and other Web related services. E-commerce is next on the agenda.
The mechanics of a rebellion
General Logic soon set up a service called Sense/NET that allows shell accounts the look and feel of a TCP/IP account. This happens because Sense/NET is about enabling a Web browser on a shell account too.
Predictably, the service had VSNL in a tizzy. It attempted to block access to the Sense/NET site over four months ago, Pawan claims.
"VSNL didn't even warn us or give us any kind of notice before blocking the site. Though it is not required of them, it is extremely impolite," Pawan sounded injured over the phone from Delhi!
VSNL's shell account users used to telnet to the General Logic server in the US before they could sit back and surf through graphical pages. By blocking the Sense/NET site and telnet access to that server, VSNL hoped to kill the service for good.
Surprisingly, Amitabh Kumar, acting chairman and managing director of VSNL, told Rediff that no attempt was made to block any site.
Perhaps his denial stems from the fact that Dr Arun Mehta, managing director, indata.com, has petitioned the Delhi high court, challenging VSNL's right to block access to information.
In any case, General Logic is bluntly defying VSNL. The company has set up telnet proxies that allow users to access their sites again.
"We have set up a telnet proxy at toldyouso.com. If VSNL blocks access to this too, we will set up another. It takes just about an hour to do that," Pawan is matter of fact.
And thus, Sense/NET lives.
All that the holder of the shell account needs to do is to download and install some software from the Sense/NET site.
But for Microsoft loyalists, there is bad news. Pawan warns that Sense/NET allows only Netscape to run on it. It does not support Microsoft Internet Explorer beyond Version 2.
Actually, Pawan has seized the opportunity to make a socio-political comment: "Microsoft Internet Explorer has all non-standard stuff in it. For them standards are something they define themselves. Microsoft is incapable of sticking to its own standards."
The Sense/NET service costs Rs 2,000 for one year. Coupled with a student's shell account that costs Rs 500 for 500 hours of Net access, the combination is unbeatable.
Effectively 500 hours of TCP/IP access would cost you only Rs 2,500 as compared to about Rs 9,000 from a regular ISP!
Yet, there are a few critics who point out that software like Linux, Perl, and Twinsock, available for download from the Sense/NET site is open source software and can be downloaded from other sites on the Net.
So what is General Logic charging all the money for? Huh?
"We are not charging for the software. If you can get it from somewhere else, it's okay. We are providing a service. You are paying for the concept not the software. What we are charging for is the service which allows you TCP/IP access on a shell account," Pawan defends.
Though the service is great value for money it still has all the problems that come with a shell account. Extremely slow download speeds, frequent disconnections and, of course, the favourite complaint of all restricted shell account users, "Shit! The computer's hung!! Again!!!"
Pawan promises to cut down some of these problems. "We are planning to shift the proxy servers to help provide faster access. But for others, there is little we can do as those are the problems that VSNL needs to look into."
The shell is always harder
It costs VSNL much more to run a shell account than a TCP/IP account. That is because a shell account user is working the machines of VSNL. With a TCP/IP account you use your PC and are very much on your own once the VSNL server has validated your login.
That is why a shell account should be harder to subsidise than a TCP/IP account. Actually, in any case, the image-less world of shell account should cost more than the multimedia TCP/IP. It is precisely this anomaly that has led to the extinction of shell accounts in more civilised parts.
"The shell account is priced all wrong by VSNL. While it should be more expensive to have a shell account, it is given for much less to the students. The pricing is all topsy-turvy," Pawan fumes.
VSNL's shell account is a legacy of B K Syngal's colourful tenure as the chairman and managing director.
Syngal strongly felt that students should have access to the Internet and decided to offer the extremely expensive to do shell accounts to students for a mere Rs 500 for 500 hours of online time!
On the flip side, shell accounts have given students a taste of pure cyber punk. Because shell accounts by definition mean you work on VSNL machines directly, initiation into cracking comes swiftly, easily and ironically, quite inexpensively!
The most serious problem that General Logic Inc has faced till day is that of sheer disbelief.
"We have had marketing problems where people just didn't believe this is true. We have a tough time convincing people that what we offer is really possible," says an amused Pawan.
He is quite happy with the way Sense/NET is going. There is only a trace of disappointment in his voice when he says "In a way when we started Sense/NET, we expected VSNL to bring TCP/IP prices crashing down. But that did not happen. For a long time, they did not even realise we had such a service!"
Pawan agrees that Sense/NET cannot sustain his company in the new order that will emerge with the decline in VSNL's monopoly.
"I think Sense/NET will last only for about two years from now. But two years is a hell of a long time on the Net," he laughs, shrugging away any more questions on the long-term viability of the service.
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