It has been 25 years since commercial Internet was first made available in India on August 15, 1995.
India has come a long way over the past two and a half decades - from when accessing the Internet was a costly, time-consuming affair to today, where we have the world on our fingertips. Almost all aspects of our lives – from shopping to banking, watching movies and even learning, have gone online.
The World Economic Forum projects that 1.1 billion Indians will be connected to the Internet by 2030. Going forward, technology and the Internet are set to change our lives in a myriad, unimaginable ways.
While commercial Internet started in India in 1995, the foundations were laid close to a decade earlier in 1986, through the Education and Research Network (ERNET) Project.
Set up by the Department of Electronics (DoE) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with funding support from the Government of India, the ERNET served the purpose of connecting different educational institutions across the country, including the five Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), National Centre for Software Technology and the Department of Electronics.
The ERNET funded its partner institutes to set up LAN (Local Area Network) to connect computers within the campus and then connected the LANS with a Wide Area Network (WAN), thus creating an inter-campus networking service. It hosted educational content and aided research and development across the institutions.
As the next step, IISc worked on providing email access to its various departments. Setting up an email server involved laying a more than one-kilometre long ethernet cables, connecting systems across different departments. All this evolved under the guidance of Anurag Kumar, the current Director of IISc. By 1992, different universities in Bangalore dialled in through the ERNET, India’s first internet service provider.
VSNL brings the Internet to India: It was on August 15, 1995, that VSNL first brought commercial internet into India, at a time when even China did not have the net. This was at a time when VSNL had a monopoly over telecommunications in the country and private players were not allowed.
The state-owned VSNL launched the Gateway Internet Access Service with the help of a satellite link with US Telecom giant MCI International, available immediately in the metro cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. It was then made available in Bangalore and Pune by end 1995.
The launch was far from smooth. Internet connections back then were extremely unstable - the modems that VSNL used were of poor quality, would make a beeping sound every three minutes and disconnect. However, VSNL’s internet service got 10,000 subscribers within the first six months.
In 1996, software services body Nasscom set up a booth for VSNL at Mumbai’s Nehru Centre to showcase what the internet could do, propelling its popularity further. The Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) was introduced in 1997 and by March 1998, the internet user base had touched 90,000 in India.
By 1996, most major newspapers across the country, such as The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindu and the Hindustan Times had set up their websites and in 1997, Tamil newspaper Dinamani launched its website.
The year 1996 also saw the opening of the country’s first internet café at Mumbai’s Leela Hotel and the launch of India’s first home-grown portal - Rediff.com, with its email service and early shopping service.
India formulated its broadband policy in 2005, which helped accelerate the growth of the Internet in the country. As per information from the Government website, penetration of Broadband, Internet and Personal Computer (PC) in the country was 0.02 per cent, 0.4 per cent and 0.8 per cent respectively at the end of December 2003. Internet access was also available at limited speeds of around 64 kbits/second to 128kbits/second.
The policy defined broadband as an “always-on Internet connection with a download speed of 256 kbit/s or above.” Though this accelerated the growth of broadband, the government’s auctioning of the 3G spectrum in 2010 and subsequently 4G spectrum, brought in a competitive wireless broadband market.
Internet’s Indian evangelists:
Known as the Father of Internet & Data Services in India, Brijendar K Syngal is credited as being one of the pioneers in bringing the Internet into India. The IIT Kharagpur alumnus resigned his job with Immarsat in London to head the state-run VSNL in 1991.
In his autobiography titled, The Telecom Man, Syngal admitted to goofing up the launch of the Internet in India and publicly accepted responsibility for the disastrous launch, as the CMD of VSNL. According to Syngal, the team had not done proper research on the size of requirement and demand.
However, Syngal and his team at VSNL sorted out its teething problems, increased investment into the launch from Rs 2-2.5 crore to Rs 10-15 crore, and tried to cater to the increasing user base. Amitabh Kumar, technology director at VSNL, also played a key role in laying out India’s Internet services.
Supporting VSNL on its mission was a group of software and internet enthusiasts that were among the early evangelists of the internet in the country.
The Internet Users Club of India (IUCI), was founded by the late actor Shammi Kapoor, also a tech geek, who had started using the internet even before the rest of India had. Other members included cyber expert Vijay Mukhi, Miheer Mafatlal and Kanakasabapathy Pandyan.
The Club would lug an Apple Macintosh computer from place to place, holding informal gatherings to show people how the internet worked. The IUCI helped VSNL work on their faults and provide better services to internet users.
Many more miles to go:
India’s first commercially available plan came at an exorbitant price – a 9.6kbps dial-up internet line which was priced at a flat annual rate of Rs 15,000 – for around 40 minutes per day! Compare that to today, when internet speeds are available up to 100 Mbps. The country also boasts of having the cheapest data pack of Rs 5/GB (Reliance Jio).
Internet in the country has also moved on from having an elite user base which could afford to pay the exorbitant rates to penetrating into the rural hinterlands with a user base of half a billion (504 million active Internet users as per a study by Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Nielsen).
In 2019, rural users (277 million) also outnumbered urban areas (227 million) by 10 per cent – this has been driven by inexpensive mobile data and smartphone penetration. A major reason for this is the entry of players such as Xiaomi, the Chinese mobile manufacturer in 2016 which brought the ‘poor man’s iPhone’ - the $100 Redmi - into India, and Reliance Jio, which brought aspects such as free voice calls and 4G at extremely low rates.
The Indian government is pushing for Digital India and building 5G networks in the country. However slow and unsteady Internet speed is hampering this dream. As per a report by Ookla, that provides free analysis of Internet access performance metrics, India ranks a low 129th out of a list of 138 countries in terms of data speed.
The average 4G internet speed in India is between 6.9 to 9.5 Mb per second (Mbps), even lower than countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka (13.5-15 Mbps).
Gender inequality is also wide. Only 35 per cent of internet users are women. The rural-urban divide is even starker – 31 per cent of women have access to the internet in rural areas, as opposed to 40 per cent in urban areas.
The Jio phenomenon
A major Internet revolution in India was sparked off by Reliance Jio. Launched in 2018, the Mukesh Ambani-led company introduced free voice calling and dirt-cheap data services. This led to a content consumption boom on the Internet and myriad OTT platforms such as Amazon Prime, Netflix,Hotstar, Voot took off big time.
Global Internet majors -- like Google, Facebook and Amazon -- are also focussing on Indian language services to attract non-English speaking Internet consumers from rural areas.
The advent of Jio has seen India’s Internet user base skyrocket as affordable data and low-cost smartphones see rural folk get on to the world wide web.
Today, India is the second-largest internet market in the world, after China. India is also one of the largest untapped markets in the world – with close to 900 million people yet to connect to the Internet. The pandemic has further increased the country’s dependence on the Internet, with schools going online and a vast section of the workforce telecommuting.
However, despite the great strides that the country has made bringing the internet to the people, there are many miles to go before the country can realise its dream of Internet for all.