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Harsh Kapoor: Options For India: Internet for the Masses?

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---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 16 Jun 1999 21:05:19 +0200
From: Harsh Kapoor <>
Subject: options For India: Internet for the Masses?

June 16, 1999
fyi (with thanks to Fred.  for sending this)
(South Asia Citizens Web)

Can the fruits of the information superhighway be shared by the poor? Can
the thus-far elitist Internet be used to benefit the marginalised and to
take the message of activists and change- makers to them? 


That the Internet is a medium currently witnessing explosive growth is
clear to everyone. It is also increasingly evident that it is impacting
and altering not only the way information is transmitted but also a whole
lot of activities like commerce, banking, education and entertainment. 

Despite these fundamental impacts on society, in a Third World country
like India, at present the Internet remains an elitist medium. By 1998,
only 0.3 per cent of India's urban population could be reached through the
Internet, while for rural areas the Mediacom 1999 Ready Reckoner
understandably did not provide a figure at all. 

Is there a way to overcome this gigantic problem of highly restricted
access? Will the Internet transport a few into the digital information age
and leave behind the rest, especially the poor and marginalised? Or can
the fruits of the information superhighway be shared by the poor and the
have-nots, and in fact be used to benefit them and to take the message of
activists and change-makers to them? 

It appears that the technology for a much wider access to the Internet
*is* available. With suitable policy guidelines and legal provisions put
in place by the government, and with concerted efforts by engineers,
entrepreneurs and NGOs, a beginning can be made in taking the benefits of
the Internet to the masses in villages and small towns. 

One person who is working toward making this possible is Dr Arun Mehta, a
Delhi-based communication engineer and activist. Along with a few others,
he is in the process of setting up the Society for Telecom Empowerment,
intended as a voice for the formulation of sensible telecommunication

The Society also plans to showcase some grassroot projects based on
leading-edge technologies. For instance, the community radio project --
using Internet radio to take health, literacy and other messages to a
populace that is illiterate or does not know English -- which will
demonstrate the use of the Internet for the poorest. The Jono-Gono
Communicator project for Bangladesh is currently at the planning stage. 

(Under the community radio project, it is envisaged that a village would
have a community information centre, with a multimedia PC connected to the
Internet. On this community PC, a Real Audio or equivalent server could be
installed, which in effect would convert this PC into a radio station,
which villagers could use to tape and disseminate audio content. Output of
the sound card on the computer could be fed into an amplifier, and
distributed over ordinary copper wire to surrounding houses, each of which
only needs a loudspeaker. Or, audio signals can be distributed from the
community PC using either twisted-pair telephone wires, or the coaxial
cable used by cable TV operators. Homes would need a small Internet Radio,
consisting of a simple embedded microcomputer, a loudspeaker, a microphone
and a couple of buttons for channel selection. One point might be added:
radio is currently a very restricted and centralised medium in India, and
the government is still to open up community radio licences to a wide
range of groups, as expected.)

In the interview below, Dr Arun Mehta explains the potential that Internet
holds for India, the defects in government policy, and the ways in which
Internet content can be made available to millions of additional people,
including the poor and illiterate. 

More details can be obtained from Mehta's web-site

Q: How did the Society for Telecom Empowerment (STE) come about?

Some years ago we had the Forum for Rights to Electronic Expression, when
they were trying to put a licence fee of Rs 1.5 million (approx US$35,000)
on bulletin boards....  We organised at that time and that proposal was
dropped by the government. 

Then, they were closing down Ernet (the Educational and Research Network,
an early service providers that gave Indians the first chance of Internet
access, though limited). This was before VSNL (Videsh Sanchar Nigam
Limited, the government-run Internet Service Provider) had come in. So
that was the only IPS in the country and they were closing it down. Again,
we got organised. 

Q: ERNET is still alive?

(With a laugh) Ernet is still alive but a lot of people (within the
government) would be very happy to see it die! Inter- departmental
rivalries, the slow pace of government decision- making and a lack of
vision are killing Ernet more than anything else. 

Today, we have a situation where we have a lot of people on the Internet
who are interested and want to do something about it. But if we are
looking for sensible Internet policy relating to advanced areas there are
not that many people in the country with much experience. 

Today the policy is being dictated by multinationals, by the government,
and so on -- all of whom have vested interests. The user does not really
have a voice. 

One would have hoped that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)
would have provided such a voice. But the TRAI is not fulfilling that
role. It is riddled with Department of Telecommunications (DOT) people,
who are on deputation... So we need a voice and the Internet provides us
with a means of organising in a way that we could do this without high

Q: What does the STE intend to do?

One of the things it will do is try and impact policy. One area we plan to
take up very seriously is the question of Internet telephony, which we may
also have to take up legally. 

VSNL [still the main service provider in India] has blocked access to
sites relating to Internet telephony. We took up that matter legally and
they promptly stopped blocking those. The cost of not having Internet
telephony is huge. 

Q: If Internet telephony is in place, why do you think the
government has not permitted it?

A very significant proportion of VSNL's revenues and profits come from
foreigners making phone calls into India, because then VSNL gets money at
an exorbitant rate from the US or wherever... What we are in the process
of preventing is Indians making phone calls abroad. 

To continue about the STE, [besides policy and legal action] the third and
very important thing that we want to do is to showcase appropriate
technologies for the environment -- the things people are not doing but
should be doing. 

For example, the dissemination of information from the Internet over the
radio. Radio is the only thing the poor can afford. Nothing else is that

Q: How will you do this, considering that as of now the Internet
is an elitist medium? How do you foresee it becoming a medium to
which the poor also have access?

Radio is something where poor people can access the software. If it were a
local radio station producing their own content, then that is tremendously

Once you have the Internet reaching the poor, you can look at things like
literacy programmes. When you are on the Internet you will see that there
is this whole world out there that you do not have access to but would
like to have access to.... 

When a large number of people from a country get on to the Internet, then
content in that language comes onto the Net.... We see audio as a
technology whose time has come on the Internet. So we will be jumping into
what is leading-edge Internet technology and using it to reach people who
otherwise for 10 or 20 years may not come onto the Internet. 

Q: But what about telephone lines in rural areas for the villages to have
access to the Internet?

I have always argued that the best way to distribute public content on the
Internet is through satellite. Then it reaches everybody at the cost of
reaching one. 

People get V-SAT connections to the Internet.... A single V-SAT connection
covers the whole of India for downloads. The question is how people may
request their downloads. Well, if you are very poor we will accept a

If you have an Internet connection we will accept a URL (Uniform Resource
Locator -- a description of the location of a resource on the Internet).
This reduces our cost dramatically, as the main cost of the Internet
connection is the international bandwidth (the width or range of
frequencies used for the transmission of information). 

Q: Once the Internet connection is in place through satellite,
does the law permit broadcasting by community radio?

The regulations were designed for a different era. What the Internet
allows is that anybody can set up a radio station. There is no restriction
on receiving Internet content, whether through the phone line or through

That is how cable networks are functioning. Now comes the question of how
you locally disseminate. If you go through the cable TV networks there is
no problem. What we are also propagating is also short range broadcast
within the village through cables strong across the village, which can
cover a range of 30 metres or more from the cable. 

Q: Do you visualise this scenario taking place in India in the
next five years?

We are going to make it happen. It is not that difficult. Plus there are a
lot of initiatives in the country to take bandwidth to remote parts of the
country, at least upto the district level. 

Many states are taking optic fibre to the districts. That is a huge
connection. That bandwidth will slowly find its way to the people because
it is only when people start using the bandwidth that any revenue is

Q: Do you feel that the Internet and related technologies will
have an impact on persistent problems of rural development, such
as poverty, health and illiteracy?

Certainly. Lack of communication is a huge cost. For instance, how many
trips does a farmer make to a fertilizer station to find that what he is
looking for is not there? 

It is a huge petrol expenditure and waste of time and effort, whereas he
could have just picked up the phone and found out. The cost to the economy
of not having telecom is huge. 

Farmers can just communicate among themselves in a wide area -- what sort
of crops did they plant, what was the experience, what they are planning
for the next season. This kind of discussion and self-help can make a
tremendous difference to their productivity. 

Q: You mentioned a village information centre on your webpage.
How do you visualise rural people making use of it?

It is very difficult to predict. The success of the PCOs (public call
offices) is a good model. they also do fax and teleconferencing. It is a
logical progression for them to go to the next step of Internet access. A
second way is cable TV networks, even though at the moment the networks
are primitive. 

Q: But at the moment they are only in urban areas?
No, no. Cable TV networks are now very widespread in India. 

Q: How do you see the language barrier being overcome? The
Internet is dominated by the English language?

Our attitude towards English has been extremely ambivalent. We have senior
bureaucrats and ministers glorifying Hindi and preventing English coming
in a big way into the education system, but where their kids go [to
school] we all know. 

There is in my mind no doubt at all that Indians want to learn English.
Given an opportunity, everybody will learn. We are not giving them the

Secondly, once there is a critical mass of users, automatically a lot of
local language content comes. The Internet might take quite a different
route into India than it has in the West. 

The development there was in a very educational and R&D kind of a network.
For them, therefore, text was the natural way of communication. Now more
and more people who get onto the Net are the TV type of generation. So now
you have a lot more multimedia on the Net. 

Q: Isn't there a threat too, from commercial forces? Also, the
large media conglomerates dominate TV; do you see that happening
with the Internet?

The commercial world has come a lot to the Internet, yes. But that has not
changed the fundamental nature of the Net, which is that you make
information available free. 

Leaving alone the sex and pornography type of sites, there are hardly any
which make money by providing you information. In fact it is important
that people on the Internet make money through the Net, otherwise it is
not a long-term, viable thing. 

To that extent, the fact that it has gone commercial is a sign of health.
The Internet is having more of an impact on the commercial world than the
other way round. 

Just wait till e-commerce picks up. E-commerce is going to change
dramatically the role of the middleman. He will have to provide a service
other than just buying and selling. 

If I can buy straight from the Internet and it is delivered at home, it
cuts out the middleman. Secondly, it shaves the margins because you are
able to do comparative shopping. It cuts down dramatically your
advertising costs. It affects the print medium and TV which charge
horrendous amounts for advertising. So the commercial world has a lot more
to fear from the Internet than vice versa. 

The main thing about the Internet is that it is unstoppable. This kind of
ban on Internet telephony that the Indian government has put is a rare
thing in the world today. 

Q: Other than deregulation, what can the government do to help
the growth of the Internet, and wider access to it?

An area which needs attention is wireless. We have an utter and complete
mess in the way we handle wireless. We have parcelled out the spectrum
into different government departments and each department does its own
spectrum management. 

A sensible way to do it is that you have one central computer into which
the whole thing is fed. When somebody comes with a new requirement, the
computer programme just checks it and says yes or not. Rather than 30
departments doing a terrible job it makes sense for one central
organisation to do it. 

As a result, currently a lot of spectrum is not being used, which is a
wasted resource. There are technological solutions available for this,
such as spread spectrum. But I suspect that the Indian government will
take a long time over this matter. 

Q: Has the National Task Force on Information Technology (NTFIT)
taken cognisance of this problem? Are their other recommendations
in the right direction?

Yes, they have taken cognizance. They have suggested that this whole thing
be reformed. And, very importantly, they have opened up one slice of
bandwidth -- 2.4 Gigahz -- for spread spectrum. What the task force did
not do was take a view on Internet telephony, which is very unfortunate. 

Q: But are their other suggestions helpful?

Yes, the task force has attacked the access question. They have said there
should be competition to VSNL. 

At the national level, again, they have opened up competition. At the
local level, cable people can provide Internet access. They have said the
PCOs should be upgraded, and so on. The financial implications of these
suggestions are huge, and nobody is paying attention to that right now.
But yes, from the policy point of view, post-task force, the situation in
India has improved dramatically. (***)

             Rakesh Kapoor is a Delhi-based writer.
           This article appeared in HUMANSCAPE-Bombay.