The ISP Denouement

So November 6 was the big day for ISPs, when the government finally started handing out licenses. Never mind if only in a scramble to vindicate Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s promise made in Bangalore, at least the ball has been set rolling.

However, it’s going to be a long-drawn ballgame, this internet thing. The coming few months will test the government’s tall promises of speedy internet proliferation in the wake of IT Task Force recommendations.

For one, while the internet policy incorporates several key recommendations like unlimited number of licenses, bandwidth with the Railways, Power Grid etc to become available and no imposition of license fee, it leaves other concerns unaddressed. Like the exact manner and intent of giving security clearance for setting up gateways or the allowing of using VSATs as an alternative means of bandwidth.

Says Amitabh Singhal, Secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI), “Even though we didn’t get the 45-day security clearance assurance we asked for, getting the clearance itself should [hopefully] not be an issue.” But he expressed disappointment on the non-permissibility of VSATs for use as backbone, which could have offered a cost-effective and easy means of offering bandwidth for internet traffic, especially in remote areas or difficult terrain. Also, setting up earth stations for use as gateways through satellite links has not been allowed. However, Singhal expects some clarifications from the government in the context of satellite connectivity, including VSATs, in one or two months. The VSAT hopefuls will have to wait till then-or offer other kinds of specialized access services like corporate intranets.

Licenses to fill

At the time of writing this article, about 20 licenses had been given. Surprisingly, there were few well-known names among the applicants-a fact that might bring to light some fly-by-night operators who want to make a quick buck riding the internet fever. Most of the serious and long-term players seem to be working out the modalities of becoming an ISP at the moment. The reason for this cautious approach is obvious: many of them are cellular operators and email service providers who have already burnt their fingers in one way or the other. But deterred they are not.

For long the email service providers have been trying to drive home the point that in light of their existing investments and nature of business they should automatically be given licenses for extending their services to the net. Thankfully, in the current scheme of things, they don’t require separate licenses to provide internet access in their areas. As regards cellular service companies, they, too, are evaluating their options, because they’ll only get conditional licenses if they have defaulted on cellular license fees. Besides, with MTNL all set to offer net services-it got the license on the first day itself-they have a fierce competitor at hand.

There are domestic connectivity issues to tackle, too. “The port charges that an ISP will have to pay to VSNL, about Rs70 lakh for a 2Mbps link for instance, are phenomenal,” says Saumendra Mohanty, National Marketing Manager of Hughes Escorts Communications, a VSAT service provider. Here, the kind of service and uptime that VSNL can or will provide assumes importance for an ISP to provide good service to the subscriber. Also, the connectivity to the ISP’s nodes will mostly have to be through the DoT-at least until the time when the State Electricity Boards, Power Grid Corp etc have the telecom set-up to provide alternative means. Apart from adding up costs, reliability of the lines is another question mark in the offing.

Breathers

One breather, in terms of sheer internet proliferation, could come in the form of cable TV-which is already thriving into an estimated 30 million homes. Companies like Siti Cable and the Hindujas are understood to be going in for this market through the use of set-top boxes. A set-top box, typically costing about Rs5,000, makes a much attractive proposition for home buyers than a PC to access the net. Although here, too, the interconnectivity of the cable operators and connection to the VSNL might pose some operational hazards. Another plus point for the players is that the ISP licensing conditions are to be governed by the TRAI Act, apart from the Telegraph Act.

For the IT vendors of every ilk, ISP is fast becoming a sacrosanct word, nay, a savior of sorts. In the backdrop of licenses and preparations for end-user connectivity a lot of equipment is being purchased at the ISP end. Herds of would-be net nerds are agog with visions of hurling themselves onto cyberspace in full steam, of course not solely depending on the monopoly this time. And the powers-that-be must now stop throwing spanners in the work by shoving in an obnoxious clause here or an unnecessary ‘necessary’ consideration there. As far as the internet is concerned, the politician seems to be delivering. Now it’s the bureaucrat’s turn to put the ball in the user’s court. When that happens, it will be one real big day.

SANJAY GUPTA,

in New Delhi.

 

 

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