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Indian ISPs Await Green Light

The public sector unit Indian Railways runs the world's second largest railway network, shuttling around 20 million people a day across 7,800 routes covering 70,000 kilometres of railway tracks. Soon it also wants to enter the data traffic market and create a nationwide Internet backbone.

The Indian Railways is one of the more unusual players in India's round-the-corner private Internet service provider (ISP) market. Close to 200 new private ISPs are expected to sprout in India by the year 2000, according to Dr. Soundra Pandian, director of New Delhi-based AP Institute of Technology (APIT).

APIT today concluded a three-city series of seminars focusing on Internet technology and network design for ISPs, in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Attendees included major potential ISPs like the Hindujas, BPL, Punj Lloyd, RPG, Hughes and Reliance Telecom, as well as smaller players concentrating on regional or city-specific markets.

India currently has an estimated 400,000 Internet users, but only one commercial ISP, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL). The entry of private ISPs is expected to drive the user base up to 8 million users by year 2002, but a row between the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) over regulatory issues has stalled the entry of private ISPs.

The Bangalore edition of the ISP conference attracted prospective ISPs based in south India. Most of the 150 organisations who have currently obtained ISP registration forms from the Department of Telecommunications are based in Mumbai and New Delhi.

D. Praveen of Vijayawada-based Sunlight Metal Works, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, hopes to help his company branch out into the ISP business by offering basic Internet services in Vijayawada and neighbouring cities like Vishakaptanam, Guntur, Nellore and Thirupathi.

"We also plan to include value-added features like Web site design and hosting for Indian companies, through a tie-up with Madras-based Web publishing company WebIndia," Praveen said.

Joy Nandi, South Asia Internet business manager for Bay Networks, said his company is working with about a dozen potential ISPs in India. "We are also involved in lobbying activities for Internet rules and regulations," Nandi said.

Bay Networks claims to have tie-ups accounting for 80% of the cable modem market in the world. "We are lobbying the Indian government to allow cable TV operators to get into the ISP business too," Nandi added. He is also involved in lobbying for legislation authorising and protecting electronic commerce on the Net.

"It will take at least another three to six months before the first private ISPs will be able to offer Internet access in India," he predicted.

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