B before the C

It
was the holy grail of 20st-century tech–one world, one medium… for voice,
video, data, multimedia.

That’s Convergence, and India’s still some way off. But in April, we’re
past some of the big steps.

Private players like Bharti entered the national long-distance fray early
this year, and caused rates to crash. Now they’ve done the same thing for
international long distance.

Other steps are symbolic, but important. Net telephony is on. It’s okay to
talk to your cousin in the US through your PC. It is a bit of a novelty until
bandwidth steps up, it doesn’t bring revenue to ISPs, and it formalizes what
people have been doing anyway. But it will accelerate PC usage.

Yet, VoIP is still no great deal for the enterprise. I can’t put “one
network” in my office for voice and data, with clever IP phones on my
desks. If I do, I can’t connect that network to the public phone system! Voice
over data… but only in a closed user group. So I’d need separate cabling for
“real-world” phone traffic. (Or we could use mobiles instead, like the
Finns.)

That heavy extra spend does not help make the case for VoIP.

And if I want 60 phone lines, it’s still good old copper, 60 pairs… No T1
link that carries voice and data flexibly, the way it is in the West today. The
artificial tariff gap between voice and data continues, a last-ditch effort to
maintain voice revenues from BSNL, VSNL, et al.

The consumer will rule. Crashing long-distance rates, value-added telephony
features we’ve never experienced in India, phone cards with incredibly low
rates, based on IP telephony… this is a paradigm shift in Indian
communications.

But most of what I’d really like to see happening in India in 2002 is basic
stuff.

  • A few phones at public places, so
    that you don’t have to own a mobile (and visitors don’t ask me how India
    is an IT services giant without any phones at the airport).

  • A working phone backbone, so that
    I can make calls when I want to, without landline “route busy”
    signals and cellular “network busy” signals (and Airtel service
    execs asking, “Is your handset okay, sir?”).

  • A toll-free service that actually
    works (I still can’t make 1-600 calls from my office in India’s telecom
    services capital, Gurgaon).

  • The real convergence step–scrap
    this anachronism, the artificial divide between voice and data. Let
    corporates connect VoIP networks to the phone system. Let enterprises buy
    one link for voice and data.

That’s the challenge for Pramod Mahajan’s converged ministry now–firm
up the foundation. B before the C. Fix the Basics. Convergence will follow.

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