THE HINDU

Monday, April 13, 1998
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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 Internetto the people. The entrepreneurs must be given suitable incentives, saysG. Pramod Kumar.

As in the rest of the Third World, in India too, Internet, the mostimportant tool of knowledge-based societies, continues to be the preserveof a privileged few. Though the deprivation can be costly in a countrywhere information wields enormous power capable of even fragmenting societies,poor telephone and computer penetration, state monopoly and high tariffkeep 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 PoonamalleeHigh Road, kiosks have sprouted all over the place. Now, the city has morethan 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 bythe service provider, VSNL.

Right from the beginning, experts have been stressing that kiosks onthe lines of STD/ISD booths will be the answer to take Internet to thepublic. And it is happening in Chennai.

``Net-Joint'' in Sector-1 at K. K. Nagar is an example of the idealsituation experts have been dreaming of: affordable access to the Net inyour middle-class neighbourhood. The kiosk is established at a house andis right in the heart of a middle- class colony. It is open on Sundaysand on all holidays.

Though Mr. J. Ramabhadran, a merchant navy officer, offers air- conditionedcomfort and Pentium multimedia machines, he charges just Rs. 60 an hourand 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 thepeople, the response is good. He is trying innovative methods to make thepeople of the locality aware of the Net and its utilities.

Many job hunters, E-mail users and matrimonial browsers have becomehis regular visitors. Students can take 1000 hours in bulk at Rs. 50 anhour.

``Cyber ConneXions'' on C. P. Ramaswamy Road, one of the earliest kiosksin the city, has been a run-away hit. The place, which housed a music-shoppreviously, has a clientele from all sections of society. One can see schoolchildren, middle aged housewives, job hunters and teenagers at this informationoutlet.

The exciting response has prompted the proprietors of the joint, Mr.RaviShankar and Mr. Ravi J. Prashanth, to think of setting up franchise centresin other parts of the State and outside. ``Net City'' on Royapettah HighRoad (146/3) is the latest addition to the information-landscape. Whenthe 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 forusing the spare computers. They started the kiosk. They are planning activitiesfor the promotion of the Net in the locality.

One of the main reasons for the affordability of these kiosks is thataccess to VSNL is gained by dial-up connections and not by high-cost 64kbps 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-upconnection alone was found to be the economical option for setting up akiosk, a software firm in the city, PPP (Plans, Proposals and Projects),came up with the answer: PPP-Share, a software that allows sharing of asingle connection by any number of terminals. Eight of the 10-odd kiosksin the city are supported by PPP- share. But does sharing affect the speedof access ? ``No,'' say Mr. Srinivasan, Mr. Kandasamy and Mr. ParameswarBabu, the three brothers behind the low- profile PPP. The regular visitorsat the kiosks also do not find any slowdown sharing. In fact, at all theplaces, the access is instant and the downloading time is satisfactory.(The limited use downloadable version of the software is available at abcdokutec.com).

One of the strategies planned by PPP India to promote the kiosk conceptis distribution of coupons at a still cheaper tariff. According to Mr.Srinivas, PPP, in association with the kiosks will distribute coupons whichcan be exchanged at any of the kiosks for about Rs. 50 an hour. Bulk salesof coupons to schools and educational institutions, private companies andindividuals too are in the offing. ``The main idea is to compel more andmore people to take advantage of the utilities of the Internet''. Accordingto Mr. Ravi Prashant, many who started without any idea about the Net havenow become experts. Mr. Ramabhadran plans awareness courses at affordablefees. ``My mission will be achieved when I see people in the neighbourhoodbecome 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 createa few lakh jobs too''. Every STD booth should be encouraged to set up akiosk, he says. Another expert on technology, Prof. T. K. Viswanathan,who heads INSDOC believes that by 2020, Internet kiosks will be as commonas STD/ISD booths.

Though the promoters of the kiosks do what the Government ought to intaking 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 kiosksand loans to the unemployed to set up such booths could alter the scenedramatically. ``It is unfair to keep the majority away from the main toolof the information- society,'' adds Mr. Parameswar Babu.


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