The Indian Budget 1996-97 The Indian Economy Overview

IN DEPTH: Internet bandwidth: India needs a backbone

[Indian Telecom Industry] [Related Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 ]

We have an information footpath today while the rest of the world rides the Superhighway, but that need not be for ever.

If the Department of Telecom, and their cohorts, the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited got off their high horse, and broke up the Telecom and Internet monopolies in India, we just might might catch the train we have nearly missed. Shortsighted, grabby, greedy and paranoid policies by the Telecom barons in their ivory towers are strangling India's biggest hope of catching up with the rest of the world, on the internet.

This article originally appeared in IS ComputerWorld magazine, and is being reproduced with permission.


The Internet is here, finally. Every corporate and nearly every individual wants it. VSNL is selling Internet accounts by the handful. Other agencies like the ERNET are also selling the 'net like there is no tomorrow. And yet, there is something missing. That "something" is an elusive quality called bandwidth.

In the more "emancipated" countries of Europe and northern America, using the Internet for voice communications is becoming routine. The World Wide Web has become the most popular component of the 'net, with extremely graphical Web sites mushrooming all over the 'net. Web developers think nothing of putting massive video and audio clips in their documents, and graphic file sizes on the typical web page are growing faster than the national debt. Public domain and shareware applications available for downloading at FTP sites are also growing into many megabytes. This translates to a need for fast data flow for any effective use of the 'net--high available bandwidth has become the crying need of the hour. For an Internet user in, say, the continental US, these large file sizes are not a problem--real-time sound transfer over the 'net is trivial, and a very graphics-intensive Web page takes barely a minute to download. If one takes the analogy of a water pipe for flow of data, the entire US and most of Europe are interconnected by a network of very thick pipes. This network backbone feeds data to a subscriber at practically any desired speed. Even small organizations are often connected to the backbone by fairly thick--by Indian standards--pipes, with data rates of 1.544 Mbps (Megabits per second) or 2 Mbps (E1 or T1) lines through their Internet Service Providers (ISPs). An ISP will typically have one or more T3 links to the nationwide backbone, depending on the traffic requirements of their subscribers.

In comparison, Internet in India is merely a shadow of the international equivalent. We do not have any nationwide backbone yet. An organization purchasing Internet access from VSNL or another ISP will be almost entirely dependent on international bandwidth into the US backbone. Most of the material on the 'net is available either in or through the US. This means that your organization may well buy a 64 Kbps Internet connection, but the effective thickness of the pipe is whatever portion of the providers International bandwidth is available at any given point in time. Service providers everywhere provide clients with a shared bandwidth, but the customer to available bandwidth ratio in India is much larger than the norm. Thus the actual usable bandwidth, for a 64K customer is realistically more in the neighborhood of 30 Kbps from VSNL, and about 5 Kbps from ERNET.

Current bandwidth availability may be dismal, but that does not imply that the picture will not change. Every Indian ISP is today making a serious analysis of the immediate and future needs of Internet users in India, though the answers may be widely varying. Every large corporate body either already has, or will soon have, an Internet connection. Many are already looking for fairly thick pipes, 128 Kbps or more. It is not as though 64 Kbps is too narrow a pipe for some purposes--about eight simultaneous users can make effective use of the World Wide Web with that kind of bandwidth. A good rule of thumb is that for every user, at least 8 Kbps, preferably 12 Kbps of guaranteed, sustained bandwidth must be available, end-to-end. This rule is applicable to dial-up Internet access over SLIP or PPP (full Internet connectivity, required for WWW access) too, but possibly not for Unix shell-type accounts. Thus the existing strategy of more or less ignoring dial-up customers for bandwidth calculation purposes must go. Going by an estimated 1000 customers with VSNL nationwide, and an extremely pessimistic expected doubling every six months, we are already looking at a nationwide requirement of at least 8 Mbps international bandwidth today. Of this VSNL currently has about 768 Kbps available today, soon to be upgraded to 1 Mbps, four 64 Kbps links from each metro.

ERNET, the other major ISP, currently has 128 Kbps out of the country. Both ISPs have plans under way to set up a 2 Mbps nationwide backbone, and upgrade international bandwidth suitably. For a country which is information starved, with a high level of Internet awareness, this kind of backbone is totally inadequate. We should be planning a 10 Mbps backbone at the very least. Considering the prohibitive cost of such a backbone for any single organization, the Department of Telecommunication of the Government ought to sponsor or at least subsidize such a backbone, and permit all ISPs to share it through some mechanism. This will also reduce international bandwidth requirement in two ways. Currently all Internet traffic between subscribers of two different ISPs such as ERNET and VSNL goes all the way to the USA, passes from JvNC (ERNET's provider) to MCI (VSNL's link) over the US Internet backbone, and then back to India. In other words, traffic between Internet nodes within the country must take the long way, using up International bandwidth of both the ISPs. Sheer wastage which could easily be avoided by virtue of an Indian backbone. The other bandwidth saving will occur over time after the backbone is in place. Currently, even Indian organizations wishing to publish on the Internet for an Indian audience, are opting for servers in the US to house their information, because of a lack of a reliable national 'net infrastructure.

Thus, everyone accessing these Internet sites must perforce use international bandwidth to retrieve information. Once the Indian backbone is functional, India-focus information will start moving to Indian servers, forming a vicious cycle. The number of Indian publishers of information and Indian servers will automatically snowball, and one can expect that within a year, it will be more effective for even overseas organizations to put material on servers in India in order to reach the audience here faster. Apart from this backbone, and the blessings of the DoT for interconnection of networks, international Internet links need to be planned appropriately. The growth of the Internet, in India and otherwise, is an unstoppable behemoth which will expand to fill all available bandwidth. What is needed today is at least 4 Mbps of international carriers from Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore, and 2 Mbps each from Madras and Calcutta. Other major Infotech hubs like Hyderabad and Pune may get 1 Mbps links to the outside world, and must definitely be tied into the national backbone.

Any estimate that is made today for Internet growth and size may well be considered ridiculously inadequate within a couple of years, but the move must be made in the right direction, and this must happen NOW. Maybe India cannot afford the dozens of T3 lines it needs, but losing out on the Internet wave can be afforded even less. We have an information footpath today while the rest of the world rides the Superhighway, but that need not be for ever --a proper road is not such a distant dream in this land where bullock carts still vie with the Mercedes, Toyota and Maruti.



(Anindo Ghosh is managing director, Active Solutions Pvt. Ltd.)


[Indian Telecom Industry] [Related Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 ]

Anindo Ghosh is a technology consultant and writer specializing in the Internet and World Wide Web. He has written for several computer and economy related publications. With several successful WWW projects to his credit, Ghosh has recently set up a Web design and consulting firm.
He is a member of the Indian Economy Overview editorial panel.



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