Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001
Global race for connectivity
It is 5 a.m. and 17-year-old Revathi is already at her father's PC, logging into his Internet account. In Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, you have to wake up early to get a reasonably fast connection. Her Class 12 exams are just two weeks away and she wants to download the "Model Paper" in maths that her friends told her, had just been posted on the Indiatimes website - a free service for CBSE students. Later today she will solve the paper, and tomorrow she will connect once more, to check her answers against the solutions provided. A book of solved papers would have cost her at least Rs. 100.
For 75-year-old Raman Pillai, October 2000, brought a major blessing: paying the electricity bill ceased to be a monthly ordeal - a long bus ride to the Electricity Board Office, and a couple of hours jostling in the queue. Now he goes at his convenience on any day of the week, even a Sunday, as late as 7 pm - to the "Friends" centre of the Kerala Government in Palayam and pays the bill in two minutes, at any of 10 computerised counters. What's more he can also pay the water bills, the annual house tax and apply for a ration card, at the same time if he so chose.
For Bali Reddy, a 70-year-old cardiac patient of a village near Aragonda in Andhra Pradesh, the spanking new 60-bed Apollo Telemedicine Unit is a great blessing. For a subscription of Re 1 per day, he can walk in and have key tests including his ECG taken and transmitted on the Net to the main Apollo Hospital in Hyderabad. Within minutes an expert diagnosis is obtained and Bali Reddy is told what medication he must take till his next regular visit.
Mrs. Jyoti Paul, a teacher at Delhi's Springdales School on Pusa Road, has just completed her course at Intel's "Teach to the Future", workshop, a programme to train one lakh Indian teachers in 1000 days. "I had no knowledge of computers whatsoever, when I joined", she says, "Now, any free period and I run to the (computer) lab...I have learnt how we can make learning interesting for students with pictures and animations.."
Joe D'Sa lives in a remote hamlet in Goa - away from the tourist haunts. A great Hindi music fan, he usually goes to Panaji once a month to buy the latest cassettes. Now he buys his cassettes "online" - at the new e-shopping site launched in recent weeks by the Chennai-based "MusicWorld" chain. He listens to a sampler from the CD or cassette, then adds to his "shopping cart". And what's more he saves more than the round trip fare to the state capital: the CD of the new Amitabh Bachchan starrer "Mohabattein" is Rs. 265 at the site - Rs. 30 less than the market price.
Fifty three years after their country became independent, Indians - the 2 million of them who owned an Internet access account, and the 15 million or more who could access one at a Cyber cafe or "Cyberdhaba" - are tasting an exhilarating new freedom: to seek and find the information they need, the enlightenment or entertainment they seek, the warmth of a new companionship they crave for, without having to bother about geographical or political boundaries. It is a strange feeling for a people used for generations to dealing with bureaucratic bumbledom,whose constant "mantra" was "You have no right to know".
And they are not alone. The Internet is a freak global happening which no one could have foreseen 20 years ago, and whose growth since then has made nonsense of all predictions. Radio was around for 38 years before its audience reached 50 million. TV took 13 years to reach that figure. The personal computer took about the same time to notch up that many sales. Yet 50 million people were latching on to the World Wide Web, just four years after it became publically accessible. The traffic seems to double every hundred days - and currently 750 million worldwide are estimated to be able to access the Net in one form or another.
It was born in 1969, a spin off from a secure network of the US Defence "Advanced Research Projects Agency", called ARPANet that was initially the cosy preserve of American academia. Twenty years later, it became a public domain and Internet as we know it was born - an informal network of networks, linking computers all over the world, and allowing them to speak a common software language. Over a lakh of these computers are linked to large "servers" which provide space for all the information that resides on the Internet: information that lay users can access without having to pay for any thing more than the right to get on the Net. So who owns the Internet and who pays for it? The answer is nobody: no single person or corporation can exercise control over the Internet, but hundreds of countries and their industries obviously make money regulating the links that latch their people to the global Net and help them to reach what and whom they want, in the most efficient manner. It is a strange ad hoc arrangement, which in total, is incomparably more powerful than the sum of its parts.
Yet for thousands of ordinary citizens the Internet is a relatively cheap (Indian cyber cafes typically charge Rs. 20-30 for an hour of access) means of empowering themselves in ways they never imagined. In the Heritage Hospital in Hyderabad's Somajiguda area, senior citizens pay Rs. 1,000 for a three week course on the Internet. Lonely pensioners, retired grandparents unite to master the technology that will allow them to - in most cases - send an email to a son or daughter abroad, or exchange family photos on the Net. Suddenly their lives are enriched - even if their arthritic fingers have a problem navigating the sensitive keyboard.
The young are quicker to appreciate the goodies they can find on the Net: from chat rooms and online auction sites to the "Virtual Temples" dedicated to favourite idols from Hrithik Roshan to Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez to Vishwanathan Anand. For them the Internet also means "MP3", the incredibly compact music format that allows them any where in the world to locate the music of their choice and exchange it. The music companies may yelp in pain - but they know that the old days of monopoly pricing are over.
Canny marketeers of the conventional kind have made a quick transition from "bricks" to "clicks" - with the realisation that some products, typically books and music, can move incredibly fast on the Internet. And with the compulsion felt by many parents to e-nable their children, the whole business of computer education has assumed a new dimension: e-learning is already a reality and while IT trainers like NIIT and Aptech have been quick to launch their online "varsities", others have seen an opportunity to offer some hitherto unattainable courses - like Dishnet's Software Engineering Course from Carnegie Mellon, US - which exploit's Internet's ability to convey a rich mix of graphics and animation.
The obverse is what is known in the Net's ever changing dictionary of buzzwords, as "B to B" - business to business" hosiery makers from Tiruppur and small leather craftsmen from UP, cashewnut merchants from Kollam and jute goods outlets from Jadavpur, who find that a presence on the Web can reach wholesale customers from the most exotic corners of the world. You reach out on the Internet and suddenly, delightfully, some one from Santiago or Surinam responds with an email which says: "I want what you make. How much can you give me and how fast?". The Internet has done more for the self esteem of the small and unheralded Indian artisan than fifty years of grudging government subsidy.
While Indians are only just enjoying the sensation of choice - there are a wide choice of "Net enabled" PCs in the price range of Rs. 30,000-50,000 (not much above global prices) , as well as multiple Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in most corners of the country - the well heeled are able to join the international move towards mobile Net access: within weeks of the international launch of mobile phones capable of receiving feeds from the Net, Nokia launched the models here and almost simultaneously the main cellular providers, strengthened their infrastructure to accept the new wireless protocols. So as the Net grows, the hardware to access it shrinks - in cost and size. "The key information appliance of the 21st century will be the PC not TV", predicted Andy Grove, computer pundit and founding father of chipmaker Intel. It has already happened in the US in 2000, when more PCs were sold than TVs. But it is still some years away here, where Indians own about 75 million television sets (almost 50 million of them with a Cable connection). And herein lies a "desi" opportunity: the ability of the Cable TV connection to carry Internet feeds. If it becomes cheaper than the present Rs. 500 plus a month, it may yet be a very Indian way of leapfrogging ahead in the global race for connectivity. In a strange way the so called "convergence" of the PC, TV and telephone technologies, may yet trigger the Internet's next Coming: it may no longer matter how you latch on to the Web - by phone or TV or PC - it may no longer matter what you do once you are there: you may just like to make a cheap international call at the price of a local call; or download a streaming video of the latest feature film in advance of its theatrical release. What matters is that in a mystical manner you would reach out and touch someone, share something, may be only a factoid of information across the planet, with a person just like you.
William Gibson the British writer, first coined the term "Cyberspace" in his futuristic 1984 novel, "Neuromancer". Less than 20 years later his vision of a formless electronic envelope of information, girdling the globe became a stunning reality. Asked to comment on the way fact had followed fiction, he speculated on why it was allowed to happen and where it would end:
"The Internet is extra national and post geographical. It is happening largely outside the jurisdiction of politicians. It is truly one of the strangest things we have done as a species. and we have done it inadvertently. If we take care of it, it may be as step towards a better world".
Not a bad vision for a world sorely in need of ideals.
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