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Business News/ Opinion / Evolving Internet in India

Evolving Internet in India

Compared to India's 70 years of Independence, the Internet in the country is relatively young at 31

Cyberspace was first thrown open to the public in India on 15 August 1995 by Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL)—now known as Tata Communications. Photo: BloombergPremium
Cyberspace was first thrown open to the public in India on 15 August 1995 by Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL)—now known as Tata Communications. Photo: Bloomberg

Most digital natives, or those born with the word cyberspace hardcoded in their brains and lives, would perhaps not realise that compared to India’s 70 years of Independence, the Internet in the country is relatively young at 31. It even celebrates its public birthday on 15 August.

While the origins of the global Internet date back to the 1960s, India first went online only when the Educational Research Network (ERNET)—a joint undertaking of the Department of Electronics (DOE) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)—was launched in 1986. Back then, the Internet was only meant for the use of educational and research communities.

Even when cyberspace was first thrown open to the public in India on 15 August, 1995, by Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (VSNL)—now known as Tata Communications Ltd.—we used to access the Internet using a modem (short for modulator-demodulator)—a device that enabled a computer to transmit data over telephone or cable lines by converting analog signals into digital ones.

The modem was not an easy beast to tame. It would emit a gargling sound and not connect easily with the telephone line. One had to repeatedly dial to make a connection with the bigger computer network of the Internet services provider (ISP). Moreover, there was no guarantee that you would get to surf the web without interruptions even when it connected finally.

People who helped make the Internet become a reality in India included VSNL chairman B.K. Syngal; Amitabh Kumar, director of technology at VSNL; tech evangelists like Kanakasabapathy Pandyan, Miheer Mafatlal, Vijay Mukhi, and the late Bollywood actor Shammi Kapoor. India was also fortunate that by the time the Internet was thrown open to the public, the World Wide Web had matured and we had access to web browsers such as Mosaic and Netscape Navigator—both now part of Internet history.

The Gateway Internet Access Service (GIAS) of VSNL was first opened in Bombay (now Mumbai), Delhi, Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Chennai). The service was soon expanded to include Bangalore (now Bengaluru) and Pune by the end of 1995. However, the official launch of the Internet for the Indian public ended up being a big goof-up as VSNL had no estimation about the hidden demand, coupled with hardware and network issues.

However, post the botched launch, VSNL was able to add 10,000 Internet users in just six months. A year later, software services lobby body Nasscom set up a booth for VSNL at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai to demonstrate what the Internet can do. Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) access was introduced in 1997, and the Internet subscriber base touched about 90,000 in March 1998.

In 2004, the government formulated its broadband policy, which defined broadband as “an always-on Internet connection with download speed of 256 kbit/s (kilobits per second) or above." In 2010, the government auctioned 3G spectrum followed by the auction of 4G spectrum that accelerated the pace of the wireless broadband market.

Today, we access the Internet in our offices, at home, in the 70,000-odd cybercafes that still exist in remote areas, common service centres (CSCs) and at modern cafes, railway stations and other public spots that have open Wi-Fi hotspots, and on our smartphones. We use a variety of technologies and media including dial-up, coaxial cables, ethernet, ISDN, 3G and 4G.

The number of Internet users in India was expected to reach 450-465 million by June, up 4-8% from 432 million in December 2016, according to a March report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (Iamai) and market research firm IMRB International. Only China, with around 700 million Internet users, has more. While urban India has about 269 million (60%) users, online penetration in rural India is just about 17% at 163 million. To increase rural online penetration, there is a growing need for more content in Indian languages.

With the prices of smartphones declining, Internet usage is forecast to rise further. However, speed remains a sore point. While the global average connection speed increased to 7.2 Mbps (megabits per second), according to the first quarter report by descriptor Akamai that was released in June, India and the Philippines once again had the lowest average connection speeds among surveyed Asia Pacific countries/regions, at 6.5 Mbps and 5.5 Mbps respectively.

To be sure, as the Internet grows rapidly in India, concerns over security in cyberspace will increase proportionately. Another concern dogging the Internet is Net Neutrality, whose principles rule that Internet service providers (ISPs) should not discriminate on online data by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) is soon expected to come out with its final recommendations on the contentious issue following the comments it received earlier this year.


Commercial Internet services in India were launched in August 1995.

The initial launch of Internet in 1995 was with dial-up access speeds of upto 9.6 kbps.

The initial launch of Internet services was with a rate of Rs25,000 for a 250-hour TCP/IP (Tansmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) account applicable for commercial organisations (amounting to Rs100 per hour).

The number of Internet users in India was expected to reach 450-465 million by June, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (Iamai) and market researcher IMRB.

Around 72% of Internet users in India are less than 35 years of age, says the Mary Meeker report.

80% of all web traffic in India emanates from the mobile—second highest in the world, after Nigeria.

Total number of telephone subscribers were 1,210.84 million as of 17 June, according to Trai.

Wireless accounted for 1,186.84 million subscriptions.

Broadband subscribers stood at 301 million at the end of June, according to Trai.

India is the second largest smartphone market in the world in terms of number of users, connecting more than 292 million people across the country, says Iamai.

While the Internet in India remains predominantly English, in 2015 alone, Hindi content on the web grew by about 94%, whereas English content rose by just 19%.

According to an October 2016 report by the Ponemon Institute, the average cost of a cyber attack on a company is $9.5 million.

South Korea continued to have the highest average connection speed in the world at 28.6 Mbps, and Singapore maintained its position as the country with the highest average peak connection speed at 184.5 Mbps.

While services such as e-mails, social networking and online shopping are prevalent in urban India, it is entertainment in the form of video and audio content that is driving Internet consumption in the rural areas of the country.

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Leslie D'Monte
Leslie D'Monte specialises in technology and science writing. He is passionate about digital transformation and deeptech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11), author of 'AI Rising: India's Artificial Intelligence Growth Story', co-host of the 'AI Rising' podcast, and runs the 'Tech Talk' newsletter. In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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Published: 18 Aug 2017, 01:28 AM IST
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