The Year of Convergence, Finally



It’s
the ABC of 21st-century infotech, the first lap.

Two years ago, I wrote about the A-year, the year of the Application. India
really discovered enterprise apps in 2000. We did all have e-mail, and early
adopters had MRP and ERP and even extranets. But 2000 saw apps really enter
mid-size businesses. Words like CRM, SCM and even ASP, peppered CIO-talk.

We called 2001 the B-year. Bandwidth was Big. After all the debate about the
real corporate demand, 2001 saw frenetic activity. Reliance, Bharti et al criss-crossed
India with fiber ducts. Even with many of them empty and the fiber dark, India’s
backbone and gateway bandwidth multiplied several times over 2001.

Exactly a year ago, I said on this page that while the Convergence Act wasn’t
really about convergence, it was a good start, though a late update on 1885…
Last year, the IT and telecom ministries, sensibly, converged, with a
tech-friendly minister at the helm.

Finally, it’s the C-year. Convergence. Communications. Consumer. Choice of
Carrier. Competition.

January 2002 has seen bigger steps than the last ten years did. Private long
distance players led by Bharti went live, cutting call rates by more than half.
And many backbone carriers are emerging as alternatives, as the IT Task Force
report hoped for. The Railways have RailTel and dreams beyond. The Gas Authority
of India, with 2,000 km of fiber across along its gas pipelines, will sell this
bandwidth, and invest $200 million in the three years.

The vestiges of monopoly are fading. Bandwidth carrier Flag was finally
allowed to sell direct to companies (and VSNL dropped bandwidth rates 40% an
hour later). Other ISPs will follow. International long distance opens up in
April, when phone cards will flood the market.

And there’s all the changes carrying over from the B-year. Dropping
cellular airtime rates, private competition forcing major shifts in basic
telephony service levels, toll-free numbers that mostly work, the use of virtual
calling cards. "Revolution" is too strong a word–until service
quality jumps, and the reach multiplies fivefold–but they’re several big
steps forward.

We’re not quite there on convergence: there’s quite a distance to go.
There’s the challenge of VoIP ahead. VSNL’s estimated to have lost $37
million to VoIP despite the so-called ban. When it does go legit, probably in
April, it will probably be a closed door for ISPs, which doesn’t make much
sense. But the ISP can get an ILD license.

The biggest impact of VoIP could be on exports revenues: moving call centers
up the value chain, to enhanced services– CRM interfaces like click-to-talk,
voice mail, video, and auto-dialing from a database..

By then, even the giant VSNL be partly privately held by Reliance, or the
Tatas.

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