Internet Content in India: Local Challenges, Global Aspirations
Session III. Local Information Content and Access
Tuesday, 6 April, 99, 14:00-15:30
Principal Consultant, Planetasia.com
Columnist, The Economic Times Bangalore, INDIA
Workshop on Internet : South Asian Realities and Opportunities
Dhaka, April 5-8, 1999
The growth of the Internet as a market and a tool in India is a development which evokes global aspirations on its 50th anniversary of independence - as well as concerns about equitable access to the technology in the country. Form a humble dial-up network in the late 1980s to prospects of upto 40 private and government ISPs unleashing over two million domestic users in the coming year or two, the Internet has come a long way in India but can go much further than the current user base of about a million users. According to Michael Connors, author of "The Race To The Intelligent State," India is an example of a relatively new phenomenon - the "info-tiger economy," one which "exists within the broader economy but depends relatively little upon it; it operates according to its own rules and transcends national borders with unprecedented ease." Today, India has more software companies with ISO 9000 certification than any other country. Its software industry has grown more than a hundredfold over the last decade, though it has less than 1 percent of the world software market share. For the local Internet market, numerous opportunities abound in Web design and business solutions. Some Indian companies are also actively courting Web outsourcing opportunities from foreign businesses. More ambitious organisations are targeting their products at other countries seeking effective country-positioning technologies.
Evolution of the Net in India
In 1987, the first dial-up e-mail network was set up between NCST and IIT Bombay. In 1998, an international dial-up e-mail network connected NSCT in Bombay to a host in Amsterdam. In 1994, a satellite communications network was set up with assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). And in August 1995, VSNL introduced commercial Internet access in India, now accounting for over 100,000 subscribers. The Internet access monopoly by VSNL was lifted by the Indian government on November 6, 11998, and NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Services Companies) predicts there may be as many as 8 million Internet users by year 2002. Thirteen prospective ISPs are targeting states and the major metros like Mumbai and New Delhi, and 21 are targeting only the larger cities. One ISP each has focused on the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Punjab. In 1999, the number of cities and towns in India with Internet access is expected to go up from the current 40 to over 70.
Indian Content Online
Indian news on the Net, once largely the preserve of mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups, is increasingly available directly from the Web, thanks to online editions of English and local language news media. As in countries like the U.S. and Australia, recent releases of the Indian budget have been accompanied by extensive live coverage and analysis on numerous Web sites. The National Informatics Centre has launched Web sites for various arms of the government, including the Parliament and the ministries of finance, industry, and education, as well as state governments. The Indian search engine Khoj (www.khoj.com) currently lists about 7,000 websites/pages focusing in India, now growing at about 25 a day. About 3,000 companies in India are now online, and close to 500 companies across the country offer some sort of support in Web publishing (designing and hosting Web content). In India, the most popular ad destinations are Webzines and Web sites of newspapers and magazines. High-profile advertisers tend to be banks wishing to target an NRI audience, and info-tech giants like IBM and Intel. Non-English content in languages like Japanese, German, Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese is growing on the Web; Indian languages are poised for a similar explosion, if appropriate Webware tools are made readily available.
Regulation and Legislation
As for governance and regulations for the Internet, unfortunately, there seems to be a legal vacuum in Indian cyberspace. In areas ranging from the use of Internet telephony to recognition of online payment architectures, much lobbying and legislation needs to be done by all concerned Internet players. And high costs of Internet access and leased lines will ensure that the growth of the 'Net, Intranets, and Extranets will be at a steady but slow - frustratingly slow for some - growth rate. While the lifting of the government ISP monopoly has been a welcome development, challenges still remain in ensuring a level playing field between government players and the private sector. Close to 20 players in the Indian ISP market have teamed together to form the ISP Association of India, to work on areas like pooling together resources for creating independent international Internet gateways. While the Department of Electronics and the National Task Force on IT are lobbying aggressively for Internet telephony, one faction in the Group on Telecom is convinced it should not be legalized. The group's contention is that if Net telephony is allowed, it may lead to the collapse of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). The Department of Electronics (DoE) has prepared the draft for a Bill, which if passed, will be known as the Information Technology Act. The Bill is expected to be tabled in the next session of Parliament. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has urged the Central Government to frame a national policy on information security and privacy, warning of increased crime in the area. Inaugurating the Information Security Survey launched by the Information Risk Management Group of KPMG, Naidu said the State had recommended that the Centre prepare a national computerised records security requirements and recommendations document for enforcing security requirements.
The IITs and the IIMs have only recently begun to offer courses and modules in areas like Web publishing and e-commerce.
"In a country of scarce resources, the Internet can truly enhance education," says Dr. D.B.Phatak of IIT-Mumbai, addressing the issue of how the Net can enhance distance education opportunities. The professional training institutes have already launched some offerings in this area. For instance, IBM Global Services India and Aptech have announced a strategic e-business solutions partnership. IBM and Aptech would be offering courses in IBM products such as Net.Commerce, Firewall, VA Java, Lotus Notes and concepts like Internet security and web administration. On January 26, Rediff On The Net launched content catering to the needs of students, teachers, educationists and parents. Model test papers, on-line chat session to solve problems, career counselling and links to related sites will aim at attracting eager students to the site.
Government Content Online
Spurred by the anticipated boom in the Indian Internet user base, a number of state governments have announced local Internet initiatives, ranging from online trade and investments services to high-tech corridors conducive to foreign investments.
Chandrababu Naidu is talking about getting all the companies in his state on to the Internet, and creating transparent government services accessible online. Information and services to be provided via the Net will include land records, property taxes, birth and death data, and applications for certificates.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has talked about having a PC in every village. Indian states with official Web sites promoting activities like tourism and industry now include Uttar Pradesh (http://www.upindia.com), Sikkim (http://sikkim.nic.in), Madhya Pradesh (www.mptourism.com), Punjab (www.nic.in/punjab) and Maharashtra (www.maharashtra.gov.in). State governments in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, and Gujarat are discussing projects for the launch of public access Internet community centres with World-Tel (www.world-tel.com). India's Commerce Ministry has selected several organisations for coordinated EDI implementation, such as Customs, Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT), Reserve Bank of India, and Container Corporation of India. The Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) has announced that it will provide financial assistance to small scale industry (SSI) units interested in getting Internet access. It has declared 1999 as the Year of Technology.
The Importance of Online Content
Much of the success of the Internet as a medium and as an economy depends on universal or near-universal access for citizens to cyberspace. But unlike ordinary telecommunications service, issues relating to access to the Internet do not stop at the level of the line and the device; that is where Net access issues begin.
Since the Net is a two-way communications and publishing medium, access issues (especially in emerging economies) should also take into account what publishing and communication resources are available at the user end. Internet users, after all, are not just consumers but producers and active participants in the information economy (or "prosumers").
The Six C's of a successful national Internet agenda, then, could be aptly summed up as: connectivity, content, community, commerce, capacity and culture. In other words, national and local connectivity to the Net must also be coupled with locally relevant content and community groupings.
Gearing up to meet all these challenges requires local capacity in terms of technical expertise and organisational/national leadership.
This paper lays out seven key areas of development necessary for India to emerge as a prolific generator of online content, so as to effectively and proactively harness the Net.
Local Language Initiatives
Encouraging signs along these seven dimensions are already emerging. India's Centre for Development of Advanced Computing has recently launched a multilingual Webware scheme called iLEAP-ISP scheme. A multilingual word processor with Internet and e-mail support in Indian languages will be made available free to all Internet subscribers through their respective ISPs.
Probably one of the most promising and notable developments has been the boost to local language content and access infrastructure by the Tamil Nadu government. The 75 million-strong Tamil speaking population worldwide has received a boost in cyberspace thanks to a $1.25 million local language initiative launched by the Tamil Nadu government to promote online content and institutional backing. The initiative, announced early in February 1999 by Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, includes seed support for a state-level Tamil Internet Research Centre and a World Tamil University. The state government will also approach the International Unicode Consortium for seeking membership. Karunanidhi has said the state government would work closely with the governments and IT sectors of Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka on such Tamil language initiatives; Tamil is an official language in these countries as well. According to Manoj Annadurai, a speaker at the recent TamilNet '99 conference, less than two per cent of Tamil Nadu's population uses computers, and most of this usage is in English.
The government's support for online initiatives and keyboard standardisation drives in the local language is expected to be instrumental for tapping into Tamil-speaking rural and home markets in India and the Tamil diaspora. Numerous other initiatives for online Tamil publishing are expected to coordinate their efforts with the Tamil Nadu government, according to Naa Govindasamy, a lecturer at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who has been working on a Tamil Unicode editor and multi-script URL software.
Several semi-commercial efforts have thus far been launched to globally coordinate Web publishing and online business among the Tamil population, such as ChennaiOnline, International Tamils Motivational Movement, TamilNet and TamilNation. Karunanidhi said the use of Tamil on the Internet is far greater than any other Indian language.
The first TamilNet conference was held in 1997 in Singapore; the second one was held this month in Chennai, and decided on a standardised Tamil keyboard based on the phonetic system as well as a base character encoding scheme. This initiative is accompanied by a major infrastructural drive to enable widespread Internet access in Tamil Nadu via community centres and Internet kiosks, with assistance from London-based World-Tel.
"A global Tamil village is in the making," said Ramasamy Chidambaram Pillay, Minister for Education and Science, Mauritius. Earlier, the Tamil Nadu government has announced that it would set up a distance learning centre to teach Tamil in Mauritius through the Madras University. S. Thondaman, Sri Lanka's Minister of Livestock Development and Estate Infrastructure, said that in three decades the global Tamil population would reach 100 million.
"The challenge before the Tamil speaking community is to bring marvelous innovations like the Internet accessible to a growing number of people," he said. Malaysian Public Works Minister Dato Seri S. Samy Vellu said Tamil is one of the oldest classical languages in the world. Tamil software standards and online education initiatives would help "create a competitive edge for speakers of the Tamil language in the new digital economy." It is imperative that such initiatives be studied and emulated where appropriate by other Indian language enthusiasts and policymakers.
31-year-old Richard Li, founder of Asia's first satellite-delivered cable television service Star TV, says the region's financial turmoil only dramatises the need for better, faster information.
"What separated the countries that did OK from those that didn't was the availability of information. Which countries are still standing? Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan. Which ones aren't? Korea, Thailand, Indonesia," he says. Business people and policy-makers in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan generally had access to real-time electronic news, while people in other parts of the region did not.
The Internet solutions industry clearly play an important role in emerging economies in the information age. It is imperative that organisations in India embrace the Net, develop sustainable and profitable business models, and explore multiple revenue streams, especially in the business and organisational sectors. To be effective, responsive and nimble, it is key that internal information flows and business processes be Web-enabled as well.