Where Is the NIB?

Chances are high that the e-mails that you send to your
colleagues in the country, will first move on to a US-based server before being
routed to your colleagues’ mailboxes. The same is true of Indian Web sites.
Click on a supposedly Indian site and there is a high probability that the same
request will be routed to some US server. Statistics point out that out of over
a million Indian Web sites and domain names, a meager 1,600 are hosted from
India.

In India, it is the international Internet bandwidth that has
been hogging the limelight. Be it Nasscom or Frost and Sullivan or general media
reports, the culprit usually has been the international bandwidth for almost all
of India’s Internet problems. Nasscom has predicted an international bandwidth
of 10Gbps by the year-end. Amitabh Kumar, director (operations), VSNL, counters
Nasscom’s claims of 10Gbps bandwidth by the year-end. Says Kumar, “Nasscom’s
figure of 10GB pertains to the total connectivity in the country including that
of domestic backbones.” So the real issue is not
international but the domestic bandwidth.

No NIB

AT&T and Qwest in the US or BT in the UK have invested
massively in building up the domestic Internet infrastructures in their
respective countries. Also, Asian states like Malaysia and Singapore are way
ahead compared to India. Singapore has deployed an ATM base broadband multimedia
network, which will help the country become a major IT hub for the Asia-Pacific
region. Malaysia is following its neighbor’s footsteps. The country has
developed a multimedia super corridor by linking 12 of its cities through a
700-Km fiber optic backbone of 2.5-10Gbps. Access is provided to home and office
through optics.

It is not that we have not thought about the same. As late as
1997, India had launched its own national Internet backbone with fanfare. The
task of setting up a much-hyped national Internet backbone was given to the DoT
and the first phase of the same was to be handed over to the nation by January
2000. But that is yet to happen. Moreover, the whole project seems to be in a
limbo. Says Kumar, “The perception that there is a shortage of
international bandwidth is misplaced. The real issue is that of providing
connectivity within the country.”

Be it private players or DoT, a robust Internet backbone has
to be in place. For a security conscious nation like India, the local hosting
has to be seriously considered, as the same would enable the country to take
care of the data in adverse political scenarios or in the event of a war or a
disaster. If the high-speed backbone with the Internet exchanges is available in
the country, a majority of the e-mail and Web site-related requests would be
routed within the country with lesser reliance on the international bandwidth.
Comments Dewang Mehta, president, Nasscom, “Our projection of 300Gbps by
2005 can come down by about a 100Gbps if we have a good internal
infrastructure.”

However, the bigger question is whether the NIB in its
current avatar can really be the answer to India’s Internet infrastructure?

The NIB will add a bandwidth of only 34Mbps to the national
backbone on the major routes and 8Mbps on other routes. This could lead to a
problem of connectivity with the international bandwidth. Comments Kumar,
“We have major centers in India as users of bandwidth, such as Hyderabad,
Bangalore, Delhi and Calcutta. And these would need to be connected on the
domestic links. VSNL would typically require a STM-2 link (155Mbps) to connect
such centers.” So even if the current NIB comes into play, it would stand
redundant, considering the buoyant demand. Also, the first phase of NIB would
connect only the main cities and until the second phase is completed, the rest
of the country would not be able to avail of the benefits of NIB.

Conclusion

Setting up of the NIB is imperative to the success of the
Indian Net economy. Says Kumar, "More and more corporate applications in
India now require connectivity, preferably within the country itself." So
it does not make sense for India to go for international bandwidth without first
doing away with the local Internet constraints.

International bandwidth is not much of an issue. With the
submarine cables or satellite already in place, the task is much easier than one
thinks. However, it’s the NIB, which will continue to pose problems for India.
This involves setting up of fiber optic networks across the country, for which
besides money, time will become the bigger issue.

With the NIB project looking increasingly long-term, the
opening up of the national long distance telephony is a good beginning. Like in
the developed countries, it’s the private players who have led the charge of
building the basic internet infrastructure blocks. Again, it could take more
than two years to have the network in place across the country. The private
basic telephony players are already putting a part of the larger Internet
backbone game plan in place. However, DoT’s involvement is very crucial for
the success of NIB. Says KS Ganesan, CTO, networking, Bangalore Labs,
"Involvement of private players will certainly boost up the overall
capacity, but it’s important that the country’s biggest infrastructure
player DoT plays a crucial role in making this happen." The big names like
Reliance, Enron, Bharti and Hughes are already laying optics crisscrossing the
states. But until that happens, it will still be a long time before Indian users
can have a good Internet experience, even if the international bandwidth is in
place.

YOGRAJ VARMA
in New Delhi

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