When India Connected to the Global Cyber Revolution

Staff Writer

How the Internet has come a long way and changed our lives forever! When launched, it was nothing like the information super highway that we experience now. The internet has become so essential to us now that the world seems to stop without the internet. We need it to pay bills at kirana shops, to check our bank accounts, send and receive mails, watch movies and many things more.

When the Internet was launched in India in 1995, it was a groundbreaking moment. The country had opened the flood gates of economy just four years earlier and there was hope and trepidation all around. But there was definitely an excitement for what was to come for an economy that had been put in chains for over 40 years.

It has been 25 long years since the internet, which is a behemoth now, started its baby steps in a vast and diverse country like ours.

As if to signify the changes and freedom it would bring us, the internet was formally launched on the Independence Day, August 15, 1995. Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) formally made it available to the public on that day.

The Internet moved quite swiftly from boxy, bulky desktops to cellphones in our palms. Anything and everything from anywhere around the world seems available to us at the touch of a button, and that too within a few seconds. The social changes that have occurred, solely because of the internet, are mind boggling.

Who would have thought just 25 years ago that you could pay all your utility bills sitting at the comfort of your home? Or fight for a cause that is close to your heart by sending in tweets or putting up Facebook posts. You can have exchange tweets with anyone across the globe. Whether that person is a celebrity or a commoner. In fact, I feel, commoner is a misnomer now. The masses are not faceless anymore. They have a voice, an identity and their rightful place under the sun, because of the internet.

In fact, Internet already existed in India since 1986. Then, it was in the form of Educational Research Network or ERNET. It was meant only for educational and research institutes and communities. ERNET was the joint undertaking of the Department of Electronics (DoE) of the Government of India, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

ERNET was launched at a time when the internet was just emerging out of labs in the US and a few places in Europe. The idea was to get the technology to India. Eight institutions were chosen for the task. They were the National Centre for Software Technology (NCST) in Mumbai, which is now known as the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, the department of electronics in the Union government, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and five IITs of Madras, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur and Kharagpur.

Srinivasan Ramani, one of the eight project coordinators, was one of the key persons to get the internet to the country. As early as 1983, he had proposed that an Indian academic network should be created. For his pioneering work, Ramani was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014.

In an article on the Asia Internet History Projects, Ramani recalls how ERNET started UUCP or Unix to Unix Copy Protocol email exchanges between NCST and IIT, Bombay in 1986-87. It also established TCP/IP connectivity between major cities in 1988-89.

UUCP allowed systems to dial each other to send emails and information. It also enabled transfer of files from one system to another. The project soon developed into an autonomous ERNET India Society with over 600 institutions across the country.

Ramani writes in IBNLIVE.com that the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) had funded the creation of the pioneering network, ARPANET. CMU was a node on this network and so I became one of the first few hundred users in the world of computer networks and email.

One of the considerations behind the creation of ARPANET had been the fact that packet switching networks are resilient against failure of equipment and communication links. That meant that packet switching does not need a perfect communication system, as long as there are communication links even if they are noisy (error-prone). It would make up for weaknesses of the underlying communication network. Secondly, there was the magic of message switching. You don’t have to suspend what you are doing and run to your computer terminal the moment an email arrives as you rush to the phone when you receive a phone call. Email gets stored somewhere and waits for you to log in at your convenience. Packet switching nodes, basically what we now call routers, handle noisy communication links well. If an information packet does not get through properly, the receiving end complains to the sending node that packet number x was not received. The sending node makes up by sending a copy of x. I recognised that a developing country like India needed this technology very badly; there was no doubt about noise on our communication links. Our communication network was growing day by day. As new communication links come up, it would be easy for routers to recognise the new resources automatically and start using them. The routers resemble “intelligent” controllers in their ability to do the right thing at the right time and to coordinate with their neighbours, without obeying a master in an engineering bureaucracy.

Ramani writes saying I have used the phrase “ERNET Partners” so far to mean only the eight institutions that had started the ERNET project as a group. However, as they started linking up, it was time to share infrastructure with other academic and research institutions. The International Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune was one of the new institutions to connect to ERNET. TIFR followed very quickly and more and more institutions started connecting up. At the peak, dial-up links shot up to a few hundred all over India. Slowly some of them also acquired leased lines, and went on to support dial-up subscribers in their own cities and their neighbourhoods.

The rise of the Internet in India was more or less in the same period during which the Indian software industry pioneers were making their mark. The government saw the potential of the software industry. Mr. N. Vittal, then Secretary to Government at the DoE, and a few other administrators were very highly supportive of both developments. A piquant situation arose when the fledgling software industry badly needed email and there were no Internet Service Providers (ISPs), public or private. ERNET informally started giving email facilities to the software companies. A wrong person above us could have put a stop to this very quickly saying we had no right to do so as we were only an academic network. Instead, Vittal was supportive. DoE was funding the ERNET, and was at the same time carrying the responsibility of making the software industry grow. So, when we briefed him with some timidity about ERNET giving support to software companies, he made it clear that it was the right thing to do. We were afraid of trouble with telecom department. These were very tough days; if multiple landlines were to be terminated at an institution, that institution could not create a network out of them. They were to be used only as point to point lines. At the beginning, when the hub served only as an email hub, we had a fig leaf – there was no level 2 or level 3 connectivity between the connected institutions. Instead there was only a store-forward message system named an email relay computer connecting them. This was dangerous – the whim and fancy of one officer could have pulled the carpet from under us. Vittal reassured us; the government had decided to give priority to the growth of the software industry, and this industry was vociferously in need of the Internet.

Ramani writes that the entry of VSNL, which was then a public sector company, as a provider of Internet Gateway Service in 1995 was a turning point for software companies and other non-academic users in India. The setting up of specialised Internet access facilities by the Software Technology Parks under the DoE was another major development. This was followed up in 1998 with the Government announcing a policy that allowed for setting up of private ISPs. A committee headed by the then Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister had looked into certain technical issues preparatory to the decision to allow private ISPs. The Secretary to Government, DoE, had asked me to work with this Committee. So, I had the pleasure of working with a charismatic leader over a few Committee meetings – Abdul Kalam. His keen interest in the technology of the Internet was an inspiration.

There was also the NICNet which started in 1988. The National Informatics Centre managed it to improve the communication between different government institutions.

Then came the formal launch for the general public in 1995. But bringing internet to the country was not easy and smooth. There was a lot of criticism and negative publicity.

But tech enthusiasts like Kanakasabapathy Pandyan, VSNL former chairman Brijendra K. Syngal, VSNL technology director Amitabh Kumar and leaders from the corporate world ensured that the internet reached the Indian shores.

Syngal says that VSNL started providing digital connectivity to some software companies at 64kbps speed since 1992. But they wanted to offer it to the common people too. Also, the Telecom Commission was pushing VSNL to roll out commercial internet services. In 1994, the public internet service existed only in Japan and Hong Kong, while Singapore was still experimenting with the idea.

In his book Telecom Man, Syngal says the key component was connecting to an internet service provider outside India. VSNL could get to Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, the US and the UK. It zeroed in on 128 kbps lines to these countries and simultaneously started setting up the hardware.

Beta testing was conducted in July 1995. Citizens like Vijay Mukhi, Miheer Mafatlal and actor Shammi Kapoor, who had formed the Internet Users Club of India, signed up informally to use the service. Syngal writes that these people were happy to be around when VSNL launched the service.  They bounced off ideas and suggested ways to make the service more user-friendly.

Even China did not have a commercial internet service then. In fact, the Chinese vice-minister visited VSNL in 1996 “to learn the tricks of the trade”, Syngal writes in his book.

Despite initial doubts, the internet was a huge success after it was launched. Within six months, the telecom provider had 10,000 users. The initial launch was in the four metros of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, and then Pune. Bangalore, the Tech City that is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of information technology companies got the internet by the end of that year.

The rates were exorbitant. It was 25,000 rupees for a 250-hour connection at 9.6 kbps speed.

Yes, that is right. The speed was just 9.6 kbps. Now, that we use internet at speeds of up to 1 gbps, it is like a race between a turtle and a Ferrari.

Then, the Internet had to be accessed using a device called Modem. It is a short form for modulator-demodulator. The machine enabled the computer to transmit data over telephone cables by converting analog signals into digital.

Working with a modem was not easy. It would whizz and whirr before connecting to the telephone line. Also, one had to dial repeatedly before getting the connection. And, there was no guarantee that the connection would stay put as you were surfing the internet.

The Gateway Internet Access Service by VSNL offered two types of internet connection based on the type of users. It distinguished them as ‘shell’ and ‘transmission’ controlled accounts. The first for individuals and students with a nominal tariff plan. These accounts provided “text and text-related information on screen but not graphics or images.” Users could download graphic files onto their computers though.

Transmission-controlled account allowed a simultaneous viewing of both text as well as graphics and images without the need to download the files.

The late arrival of the internet had some advantages. By the time it hit the Indian shores, the World Wide Web had matured. There were already web browsers like Mosaic and Netscape Navigator to be used. Both these browsers are now part of the internet blackhole where millions of such ventures have vanished into.

A year after the internet was launched, the software services lobbying group Nasscom set up a booth for VSNL at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai to demonstrate what the Internet could do.

Writing about the challenges faced, Syngal says Nasscom chief Dewang Mehta came up to him and said, ‘Mr. Syngal, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. We need to demonstrate what the internet is all about. Can you get a couple of 2 mbps lines into Nehru Centre?’

That was not easy. But Syngal said to his people: ‘This is a god sent opportunity. We have mastered the art of providing digital connectivity. Let’s show the world what we can do.’

So VSNL had a booth at the Nehru Centre where they would give live demonstrations of downloads. The excitement among the young people was tremendous. There would be a stampede every day.

R.K. Takkar, chairman of the Telecom Commission, heard about it and came down to see it. The staff asked Syngal whether they should clear the crowd around the booth for him. Syngal told them ‘No, let him wade through the crowd. Let him see the euphoria among the youth.’ He was quite amazed by what he saw.

Syngal writes that someone remarked that VSNL did not need to rent a crowd — the crowds came like bees homing into their hives. Such was the euphoria.

After that VSNL never looked back and continued to provide wider connectivity. It ultimately led to private sector participation.

Here are some more important milestones in the history of Internet. Some of them are good, some are bad. But they are milestones all the same.

A year after the Internet was launched, Rediff.com opened India’s first cyber cafe in Mumbai. In 1997, ICICI Bank started online banking. Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) access, which offered better internet speeds, was also introduced that year.

The new millennium started with the dotcom bubble burst. It took another two years for airlines to launch the online ticketing system.

It was a watershed moment when the broadband was introduced in 2004. The government formulated a broadband policy. It defined broadband as “an always-on Internet connection with download speed of 256 kbps or above.”

The social networking phenomenon started in India in 2005, while Orkut and Facebook came a year after. In 2008, 2G spectrum was allocated, followed by 3G a year after. WiMax also was auctioned in 2010.

In 2010, the government auctioned 4G spectrum which gave a big boost to the growth of internet across the country. It allowed people to stay connected, always. We now can access the internet at homes, offices, railway stations, markets or for that matter almost anywhere.

With the opening up of the internet has come the necessity to regulate it.

One should know that Indian citizens do not enjoy absolute right of freedom of speech and expression as there are certain reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Regulations are necessary to ensure that the content featured on online streaming platforms remains within the scope of Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

Movies are certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and governed by the Cinematograph Act. Such certification is also necessary for movies streamed by online platforms.

As per the IT Act, citizens can seek legal remedies if the content contravenes any of the provisions of the act.

Sections 1 and 75 of the IT act collectively make the legislation applicable to any person of any nationality anywhere in the world. This is as long as such services are felt on computers, computer systems or computer networks physically located in India.

For better or worse, the Internet is beyond any regulation. That is because it allows service providers, content providers and consumers to be at different jurisdictions and geographical locations.

Also, it is difficult to regulate the content. That is because what is inappropriate for someone may be perfectly acceptable to another group. It is up to the people to decide they want to see, hear or read a particular thing on the internet.

But more and more countries are realising the need to regulate the Internet within their physical boundaries. Russia and China already have laws which state that the content should be in compliance with the local laws.

The government needs to ensure that online streaming platforms work within the boundaries of local laws. The government should also set parameters for monitoring. Streaming platforms should form a body that goes beyond boundaries and formulate a self code of conduct.

As far technologies and media are concerned, we use dial-up, coaxial cables, ethernet, ISDN, 3G and 4G to access the internet. A study estimates the number of internet users in the country at around 63 crore people. Though some disagree with the number, it is certain that the country has a very large number of people using the internet. Only China has more number of subscribers than us in the world.

The internet has changed the way the business is conducted. Many online-only companies have been threatening to outpace or already overshadowed traditional brick-and-mortal establishments. The country has seen a tremendous growth because of the internet. There seems to be no boundaries for possibilities.

Syngal puts it succinctly when he says, “If you compare the GDP at that point in 1995 and what it is today, all this couldn’t have been possible without digital connectivity and the internet… These 25 years will be a speck in the near future.”

Indeed it is.