WILL we have private ISPs soon? The Department of Telecommunications (DOT) has forwarded the proposal to the Cabinet. And, from high-end hardware companies and solutions providers to website hosts and small Internet entrepreneurs, enthusiasm over the entry of private Internet service providers (ISPs)—currently only VSNL can give you access to the Net—is all-pervading.
Says Ashok Desai, managing director, SAARC region, of the New Delhi-based Silicon Graphics Systems (India) Ltd: "This is a positive move for us. When ISPs offer their services, they'll expand the market, and to cater to this market, they'll need our hardware platform." And why not? Operating at the high end of the hardware hierarchy, the Silicon box becomes important once a site gets more than a million hits a day.
At Mumbai, the excitement is visible in Rajesh Jain's eyes. As managing director of Ravi Database, he has reason to feel elated: "We expect the annual growth rate of Indian sites to grow at 300 per cent till the turn of the century." Jain hopes to ride this boom. One indication: in a NASSCOM survey of India's top 400 software companies, only 230 had an Internet connection. Talk of being outdated.
Bharat Suneja of Surat-based Metaphor Infotech similarly can't control his exhilaration: "Surat will finally be on the Internet map." He's been lobbying with VSNL for granting Internet access to the city for the last 18 months. If private ISPs are allowed, he's planning to become one. Over the next few months, he plans to invest anything up to a crore in various equipment to get his townsmen hooked on to the Net: "Whoever comes first will take away most of the market." Back in New Delhi, Manish Modi, managing director of NetAcross Communications, exults: "Now you won't have to live with indifferent service." But he also offers a word of caution for prospective ISPs: "This is a very intensive business. You can't sleep for a minute." What's more, a national ISP would need to invest upwards of Rs 100 crore, while a regional player would have to shell out more than Rs 20 crore to get started. This is apart from the annual expenditure of 10 per cent of the initial investment. The pay-back period: five to seven years.
But the thrill of private ISPs will finally have to trickle down from the Desais, the Jains, the Sunejas and the Modis to finally the most important players in the Indian Cyberworld: the Indian digerati. Who would be concerned about three issues:
What is an ISP? As the name suggests, an ISP is a company that provides you Internet services. Today, there's only one ISP in the country: VSNL. It lets you dial into the Internet and cruise in the World Wide Web. For this, it charges a fee—Rs 15,000 per annum for 500 hours of Internet access for a TCP/IP connection which allows you to view text plus visuals, Rs 5,000 for picture-less access, and Rs 500 for students. Compared to one in this country, the US—the hub of Internet activity, with 70 per cent of the world traffic—has about 7,000 ISPs.
What's in it for you? The consumer will have unlimited choice. None of the people or companies Outlook spoke with is satisfied with VSNL. Faulty lines, poor service, unrealistic pricing and modem incompatibility are only some of the irritants. With private ISPs in town, these glitches may end. All expect prices to fall, or get modified. If, for instance, you don't want to pay for a year, you may have the option of paying monthly rentals.
How to choose an ISP? This one's tricky. There'll be two major categories of ISPs in future: national and regional. You may be tempted to go in for the first, as even if you were to move from Mumbai to Moradabad, you'll still be able to access Internet. The catch: you might not get the level of service that a regional ISP, because of its proximity, might offer. But a smaller size has its own disadvantages. The local ISP might not be able to offer many of the services of a larger one—training, price advantages, and the like. You also have to ensure you don't pay STD charges for hook-up. Speed of access is another point to consider. The connection might be fast, but what if the lines are busy? It makes sense to check out an ISP's customer-to-modem ratio. If it's less than 12:1, it's all right. The consumer would also need technical support, at least on the telephone. Finally, tomorrow you might want to host your own little web page. For this, you not only have to seek server space of the ISP, but also training.
So, don't fall for the come-hither looks from ISPs, shop carefully.