Dial-up dreams to Wi-Fi wonderland
Today, internet connectivity is at least 4,000 times as fast, and costs a fraction of what it did 25 years ago. It had in 1995 all of 23,500 websites (compared to 1.8 billion now, according to Internet Live States).Updated: Aug 14, 2020 00:25 IST
On August 15, 1995, Indians woke up to the tariff plan of a new sort of communication service they could purchase: dial-up internet. At Rs 15,000 a year, it was not quite something the average Indian could afford then. The subscription would run out if someone connected for more than 250 hours over the year. The speed, breathtaking by the standards then, was 9.6 kilobytes per second.
Today, internet connectivity is at least 4,000 times as fast, and costs a fraction of what it did 25 years ago. It had in 1995 all of 23,500 websites (compared to 1.8 billion now, according to Internet Live States). The most novel use at the time was sending and receiving e-mails. Today, it’s the backbone on which tomorrow’s self-driving cars, autonomous robots and immersive virtual reality are being built. In India, it is now where conversations in the smallest of towns take place.
But, like most agents of epochal change, India’s internet journey began with slight trepidation, heaps of excitement, and the collective efforts of a small but a driven group of people.
“In the years before 1995, there were a few institutions or groups that were experimenting with access to internet. One was the academic network, called ERNET and the other was the Internet Users Club of India which was led by none other than Shammi Kapoor,” said Brijendra Kumar Syngal, the then managing director of Videsh Sanchal Nigam Limited (VSNL) and the man largely credited with bringing commercial data connectivity to the country.
VSNL’s service, called the Gateway Internet Access Service (GIAS), was available first in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. The company held a virtual monopoly till 1998 when Satyam Infoway began internet service operations. “The launch was the result of a great camaraderie between all those people, the enthusiasts, the scientists – no one at any point tried to pull anyone down,” added Syngal.
To understand what the launch of dial-up connections meant, it is important to look at the state of the internet in India prior to that. Surfing the World Wide Web, at the time a collection of mostly text-based web pages, and email were possibly the only applications that most people used the internet for. A large proportion of these were scientists, researchers and professors in seven of the country’s top colleges who became part of ERNET (Education and Research Network) that began in 1986, sharing insights about their respective fields.
But this was still time when telecommunications in India was too rudimentary to sustain data links over phone lines. “With telecom lines being very unreliable IIT Kanpur started an ‘F-Mail’ where every week all e-mails would be copied onto a floppy and couriered to NCST Bombay that would send out the mails and copy back the incoming mails and courier the floppy back to IIT Kanpur,” wrote professors S Sadagopan, the director of IIIT-Bangalore, and N Mohanram, the former Director General of ERNET India, in an op-ed piece for telecommunications website Voice&Data.
If this was the beginning of the cocoon phase for India’s internet story, the metamorphosis to when it finally took wings happened roughly around 1995 and 1996. While VSNL’s service was active, it suffered from teething troubles. “I will admit, we made mistakes in the beginning. We did not anticipate demand and the infrastructure was extremely inadequate,” said Syngal, adding: “if you ask me, everything that could go wrong went wrong”.
The VSNL team was criticised by the media as well as the administration, as people kept reporting dropped connections.
At the same time, however, the fledgling software industry and the enthusiasts clubs, particularly led by the techno evangelism of Bollywood star Shammi Kapoor succeeded to sell the vision of an internet boom to the labyrinthine bureaucracy. “At one point, we tried to make what was the closest to a video call between the then telecom minister and his family members in Bihar. It was not like today’s video calls, it was more of a one-time video message, sent purely to demonstrate the potential of the technology,” said Harish Mehta, one of the founders of Information Technology collective NASSCOM and among the people who was part of the early internet advocacy groups.
Among these people was Dewang Mehta, who went on to become one of the most prominent faces of the Indian software lobby group. “Dewang came up with the slogan -- roti, kapda, makaan aur bandwidth -- and a minister we met at the time had no idea what bandwidth was. This is how new it was to explain connectivity to the powers in Delhi even though the world was becoming aware,” said Mehta, adding that the slogan was one of the starting points from where the close coordination with the government began.
Dewang Mehta died in 2001 at the age of 38, but left a significant legacy in India’s IT industry: He was named by Computerworld Magazine as Software Evangelist of the Year three years in a row. In late 2000, the Geneva-based World Economic Forum selected him as one of the 100 “Global Leaders of Tomorrow”.
Harish Mehta, at present the executive chairman of Onward Technologies Ltd, was also among people who started the Bombay Computer Club, which would grow into the Internet Users Club of India and draft Kapoor as the one of its star advocates. “In services sector, we use a concept of selling something that is not visible – it’s a solution. In marketing, we would bank on something called evidence-based marketing where we would cite our past record. We asked Shammi ji to use the same model to sell the internet vision in India, because it was still not a concept anyone knew,” he said. And after all, Kapoor was, as a wag pointed out at the time, the original Yahoo.
“Shammi ji was a great orator. We took him to Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore, everywhere. We took him to Syngal’s office, the ministry and we talked about why internet was necessary,” he said, adding that one particular event in 1996 at NASSCOM’s Nehru Centre was a key turning point. On that day, when Kapoor told his story about the internet, hundreds of people turned up. “All that excitement culminated into nudging the government to allow more private companies to offer internet services,” Mehta added.This phase sowed the momentum for an inflexion point that was marked by a “dramatic drop in costs”.
“After 1997, with proper internet infrastructure now erected across India, the cost of telecommunication services plummeted. We used to budget somewhere around 4-5% of our topline as our communication spend. It became close to 0 all of a sudden,” Mehta said. The infrastructure referred to by Mehta was the setting up of nodes and servers across multiple locations – which increased capacity. “But more than the gains from lower costs, it was the increase in productivity that being online brought to every company,” he said.
By 1998, cyber cafes began mushrooming across India-- at first in the metro cities, before they became profuse in tier II cities by the turn of the millennium. Till late 2004, internet bandwidth grew steadily as ISDN networks complemented home dial-up connections, which became cheaper by the way. In 2004, the government announced the Broadband Policy, defining 256kbps download speed and an always-on feature as crucial conditions for a service to be classified as broadband. This set off a home broadband revolution, which powered an over 1,300% rise in internet subscribers in the country between 2005 and 2015.
Today, most people in India access the internet on their mobile phones.
“The communications revolutions, now when I look back at this two decade journey, was integral to the India Inc story. It helped us arrive in Silicon Valley, take our products global,” Mehta said.