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Internet for the people
Date: 13-04-1998 :: Pg: 25 :: Col: a
The kiosks are doing what the government must do in taking Internet to the people. The entrepreneurs must be given suitable incentives, says G. Pramod Kumar.
As in the rest of the Third World, in India too, Internet, the most important tool of knowledge-based societies, continues to be the preserve of a privileged few. Though the deprivation can be costly in a country where information wields enormous power capable of even fragmenting societies, poor telephone and computer penetration, state monopoly and high tariff keep it out of bounds for the majority.
But Chennai is taking the lead in providing an answer: cheap kiosks. In a short period since the opening of the first outlet on Poonamallee High Road, kiosks have sprouted all over the place. Now, the city has more than 10 such places where access to Internet does not cost more than Re. 1 per minute, an affordable price, in view of the high-tariff charged by the service provider, VSNL.
Right from the beginning, experts have been stressing that kiosks on the lines of STD/ISD booths will be the answer to take Internet to the public. And it is happening in Chennai.
``Net-Joint'' in Sector-1 at K. K. Nagar is an example of the ideal situation experts have been dreaming of: affordable access to the Net in your middle-class neighbourhood. The kiosk is established at a house and is right in the heart of a middle- class colony. It is open on Sundays and on all holidays.
Though Mr. J. Ramabhadran, a merchant navy officer, offers air- conditioned comfort and Pentium multimedia machines, he charges just Rs. 60 an hour and for a minimum period, Rs. 15. According to the communication enthusiast, who took the ``risky'' plunge with the main aim of taking the Net to the people, the response is good. He is trying innovative methods to make the people of the locality aware of the Net and its utilities.
Many job hunters, E-mail users and matrimonial browsers have become his regular visitors. Students can take 1000 hours in bulk at Rs. 50 an hour.
``Cyber ConneXions'' on C. P. Ramaswamy Road, one of the earliest kiosks in the city, has been a run-away hit. The place, which housed a music-shop previously, has a clientele from all sections of society. One can see school children, middle aged housewives, job hunters and teenagers at this information outlet.
The exciting response has prompted the proprietors of the joint, Mr.Ravi Shankar and Mr. Ravi J. Prashanth, to think of setting up franchise centres in other parts of the State and outside. ``Net City'' on Royapettah High Road (146/3) is the latest addition to the information-landscape. When the stock market went into a tailspin, Mr. K. Sundaram and Mr. A. S. Ramakrishnan, partners of a stock and share broking company, found a better option for using the spare computers. They started the kiosk. They are planning activities for the promotion of the Net in the locality.
One of the main reasons for the affordability of these kiosks is that access to VSNL is gained by dial-up connections and not by high-cost 64 kbps leased lines used by the ``cafe'' kind of net- browsing centres.
Many wonder how several terminals could share a single dial-up connection. Here again, the cheap alternative originated from Chennai. When the dial-up connection alone was found to be the economical option for setting up a kiosk, a software firm in the city, PPP (Plans, Proposals and Projects), came up with the answer: PPP-Share, a software that allows sharing of a single connection by any number of terminals. Eight of the 10-odd kiosks in the city are supported by PPP- share. But does sharing affect the speed of access ? ``No,'' say Mr. Srinivasan, Mr. Kandasamy and Mr. Parameswar Babu, the three brothers behind the low- profile PPP. The regular visitors at the kiosks also do not find any slowdown sharing. In fact, at all the places, the access is instant and the downloading time is satisfactory. (The limited use downloadable version of the software is available at bjornbern.com).
One of the strategies planned by PPP India to promote the kiosk concept is distribution of coupons at a still cheaper tariff. According to Mr. Srinivas, PPP, in association with the kiosks will distribute coupons which can be exchanged at any of the kiosks for about Rs. 50 an hour. Bulk sales of coupons to schools and educational institutions, private companies and individuals too are in the offing. ``The main idea is to compel more and more people to take advantage of the utilities of the Internet''. According to Mr. Ravi Prashant, many who started without any idea about the Net have now become experts. Mr. Ramabhadran plans awareness courses at affordable fees. ``My mission will be achieved when I see people in the neighbourhood become regular users,'' he adds.
``Kiosks will be the answer for the country,'' says Dr. S. Ramani, Director, National Centre for Software Technology (NCST), Bombay. ``It can create a few lakh jobs too''. Every STD booth should be encouraged to set up a kiosk, he says. Another expert on technology, Prof. T. K. Viswanathan, who heads INSDOC believes that by 2020, Internet kiosks will be as common as STD/ISD booths.
Though the promoters of the kiosks do what the Government ought to in taking Internet to the people, there has not been any incentive to them. They believe that reduction of VSNL, the DOT and power tariff to the kiosks and loans to the unemployed to set up such booths could alter the scene dramatically. ``It is unfair to keep the majority away from the main tool of the information- society,'' adds Mr. Parameswar Babu.
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