A decade ago Internet connectivity may have been considered a luxury, but the world's outlook on what I like to describe as the repository of collective human consciousness has changed radically. It's been several years since France has made access to Internet a human right. Finland has gone a step further and mandated access to a minimum of 1Mbps Internet connection a legal right to its population of five million. The minimum required bandwidth is proposed to be bumped up to 100Mbps by 2015.
This makes one wonder how long will it take for India to implement the same for its 1.2 billion-odd population. Not anytime soon because roughly some 600 million Indians do not have access to electricity, let alone Internet access. Almost all of this underprivileged populace, however, resides in far-flung villages and towns. The metros and tier-2 towns, on the other hand, have a considerably better Internet penetration, and this is where most of our estimated 121 million strong Internet users are based out of.
India has much work to do on the Internet front, if it is to stay relevant in the tech sector (image credit: Michael Waibel)
Procuring Internet connectivity even in metros isn't anywhere near as convenient or a pleasant experience as it should rightfully be. Even as the home Internet revolution was gaining momentum at the turn of the millennium, reliable connectivity to the World Wide Web was an expensive proposition fraught with many risks. Thanks to a lack of consumer protection and guidelines for ISPs, many early adopters have lost tens and thousands of rupees to fly-by-night ISP that insisted—like any self-respecting conman would—on full annual payment in advance.
The condition after a decade is considerably better with large corporate entities having established their presence as reliable ISPs. The only complaints now are relegated to those who have Internet connections limited by data or time. In such cases, sporadic instances of users being charged exorbitantly and sometimes fraudulently with inflated usage figures, complaints of packet duplication, and general sentiment of mistrust between the consumer and service provider are common. Mind you, these complaints aren't exactly in the minority, which isn't a surprise, because we aren't really known for our strong corporate ethics, as aptly illustrated by the Sify debacle.
The picture isn't rosy even for the instances where transparency exists, because the overall cost of Internet connectivity in India is pretty high to begin with. Considering the might of IT in this nation and a rather impressive consumer base, it's confounding how the cost per Mb is still relatively expensive, when compared to its First World peers that possess just a fraction of its connected users. Such tabs on bandwidth consumption are pitiful in an age where video services are considered the cornerstone of the Internet revolution.
FUP and other bandwidth restrictions are bad news for streaming video (image credit: GettyImages)
While the rest of the world is moving towards multi-gigabit home connections to fuel the craze of streaming content, Indian ISPs on the other hand have come down like an anvil to curb this sort of data consumption. If you haven't clued in on it yet, by that I mean everyone's favourite bugbear—FUP, or Fair Usage Policy. For the two people who've never heard of this, it's essentially a marketing euphemism to describe the ISP setting an arbitrary usage limit for its tariff plan, and the act of dropping the connection speed when users hit that limit. That not only limits the subscriber's usage of the Internet, but it's a rather insidious precedent that's detrimental to Internet penetration in the country as a whole.
This isn't the only problem the consumers have been plagued with. Absence of guidelines to ensure quality of service and lax consumer protection laws have led to a wide chasm between the consumer's expectations and the kind of service delivered by the ISP. Downtimes tend to be quite frequent, but there's no clear directive for ISPs to maintain a minimum uptime and if the consumer is liable to receive a refund if the same isn't upheld. This is largely because if you ignore a few large players such as MTNL/BSNL and Reliance, most of the home Internet delivery mechanism depends upon local cable operators for the last mile. The massive inconsistency in service and the general lackadaisical attitude of these cable operators is to blame for poor reliability and quality of Internet connectivity.
In a country with 87 million mobile Internet users, the service offered is nowhere near what it should ideally be. The ISPs reluctance to deliver reasonable amount of bandwidth has led to incredibly high contention ratios for mobile Internet connections. This means most 3G connections at busy areas tend to have the bandwidth shared by way too many people. This is precisely why it's very rarely that users have the luxury of enjoying the full bandwidth of their 3G connections.
The tech savvy among us have found alternate ways to overcome the bandwidth restriction (image credit: GettyImages)
These factors have led the consumers and the industry itself to think laterally. Since bandwidth is an issue, an enterprising community of Internet users have found a novel means to use this city-wide network of copper as a larger WAN for peer-to-peer filesharing. Colloquially known as DC++ after the utility employed to run the infrastructure, it has grown into a massive network of tech-savvy users sharing all sorts of content—from engineering projects and study material to movies, video games, and tens of terabytes of porn, painstakingly classified by genre, decade, artistes and more.
At any rate, this is only a lateral solution to the problem of bandwidth restrictions. However, it doesn't solve the much more important issue of the lack of Internet penetration owing to high cost. This is something that can only be addressed by government intervention, as it is being seen in forward thinking nations such as France, USA, and the Scandinavian countries, who are making a definite push to make Internet access a legal right over a mere luxury.
The Indian government, however, has announced its intention to bring Internet to 600 million of its citizens by 2020. This seems a herculean task because half of its 1.2 billion strong population is without basic electricity to begin with. Concrete actions and a forceful push towards Internet proliferation is the need of the day over lofty proposals. We may have caught the IT wave, but at this rate we are in serious risk of losing the Internet race.
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