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|01. West Bengal yet to respond: Proposal for 1000 community internet centers; The Statesman, October 1, 1998; front page.|
STATESMAN NEWS SERVICE
NEW DELHI, Sept. 30. - While Chief Ministers visit western countries to lobby for investment in their states, Mr Sam Pitroda, Chairman of London's WorldTel is frantically searching for someone responsible in the West Bengal government to tell him about the fate of a $60 million proposal he had submitted to Mr Jyoti Basu in Calcutta earlier this month. The proposal involves setting up of over 1,000 community internet centres in the state. WorldTel, initiated by the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is involved in organizing large telecommunications infrastructure projects in developing countries.
Mr Pitroda, former C Dot Chairman who also headed the Indian Telecom Commission, had submitted the proposal to Mr Basu in the presence of the state finance minister, Mr Ashim Dasgupta. The proposed community Internet centers would, through computers, provide people affordable access to information and easy facilities for communicating with the various departments of the state government and emergency services. Mr Pitroda, who on behalf of WorldTel on 7 September signed an MoU with the Tamil Nadu government for installing such centers in that state, had broached the proposal to the Marxist Ministers, assuring them that the facility would quietly revolutionize the way the government interacts with the masses.
Not only would such a link streamline the people's dealings with the state administration, it would also reduce the scope for corruption in the distribution of forms for jobs and tenders. According to Mr Pitroda, state governments in India have between 25,000 and 26,000 forms mainly for public use.
Mr Piroda's plan would allow franchisees of such centres to provide facilities like information for government jobs and tenders through their internet network. Job seekers could apply through these centers by paying a nominal fee to the franchisees who would log in their applications, eliminating the hassles of buying forms in the blackmarket.
In his presentation to Mr Basu, Mr Pitroda had suggested that the centers could also allow people to directly lodge FIRs with thanas, so people would not be at the mercy of the police. The centers could also provide information about availability of beds in hospitals and health centers.
Mr Pitroda had assured Mr Basu that WorldTel would bring the entire $60 million from abroad and the state government would not have to make any substantial investment in the project. The Tamil Nadu government, realizing the spinoffs, instantly provided the green signal by signing an MoU with WorldTel.
For almost a week, Mr Pitroda has been trying to reach those in West Bengal government who will decide the fate of the project. Mr Basu and Mr Dasgupta, impressed by the presentation had promised to get back to him at the earliest.In the case of Tamil Nadu, DMK ministers and senior bureaucrats were chasing WorldTel for quick implementation of the project. In the case of West Bengal, it is the other way round", lamented senior ITU officials.
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|02. WWW.Tamasha.Gov : Internet service will go private. Really?: Editorial in The Statesman dated November 5, 1998, page 8.|
is conveyed by the Prime Minister's announcement on privatising Internet
services? Going by the recent fate of prime ministerial promises, it is
reasonable to expect that the process of dismantling VSNL's unholy monopoly
will be a lot harder than buying salt in Delhi, which, as harassed Delhites
will confirm, is saying a lot. At least with salt, artificially scarce
though it is, one knows the price. For private Internet service, the
government has announced a grand scheme without working out a tariff.
This seems extraordinary. But then, this is India. And in India, communications
policy is hostage to bloated government thugs called Dot and MTNL.
They are debating - code word for prolonged inactivity punctuated by bazar
haggling - just how much private service providers should be allowed to
charge subscribers. Surely, if any one has to decide the tariffs it should
be the telecom regulator. However, TRAI, after a good start, seems to be
hobbled, partly because DoT has been allowed to throw its weight around
and partly on account of its own timidity. So TRAI is debating as well.
And licenses for private net services will be given out from November 7
without telling the applicants how much they can charge!
That's not all. The backbone of the privatised Internet will be the gateway the service providers are to use. The present idea is that private parties will use VSNL's facility and pay for the privilege. Why? There are two other alternatives - the NIC gateway and the Software Technology Park - and private service providers can be asked to choose one. But an official culture that makes private airliners pay for IA ground facilities and enjoins private basic telephone companies to use DoT's lines for a price, will not comprehend why, at the initial stages, ready infrastructure is vital for promoting a privatized communications system. A few enlightened official souls had proposed a National Information Infrastructure, a mega project costing a couple of billion dollars but one that would have easily paid off the expenditure from benefits accruing. The project is now buried. Till the NII is in place, the two alternatives to VSNLs gateway are a must for private Intenet services. Otherwise, VSNL will either take advantage of its command over the gateway to stifle competition. Or, if they play fair - admittedly an extraordinary assumption - its technical competence in handling higher traffic following privatisation is in serious doubt; even with the current modest net subscription, VSNL's service has broken down more than once.
That brings us to the most striking aspect of the prime minister's assurance - Internet service will be expanded without increasing the supply of phone lines. The newspaper had said earlier - when reports appeared that VSNL was refusing to issue new net subscriptions because it could not get an adequate number of lines from MTNL - that to keep basic telephony in the dark ages and expamd Internet is a folly of the first order. Now, with private net services a declared official committment, the anomaly assumes the proportions of a farce. Optimists will say that phone lines are not the only way to access the net. One could build networks around power grids or even railway systems. The cable TV is another route for accessing the Web. What we know is that another telecom tamasha is upon us. The curtain is about to rise.
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