Say goodbye to those bandwidth blues!

Over 37 million people, worldwide, log on to the Internet, every day, most of them using POTS - the plain old telephone system - that was never designed for such traffic. No wonder WWW now means 'World Wide Wait'. But help is at hand. Anand Parthasarathy reviews recent developments in broadband technology which promise stronger, fatter pipes for information flow.

IT USED to be said: 'You can never be too rich or too thin.' Now they're adding another adage to that short list: 'You can never have too much bandwidth.'

Like an ever-hungry `bakasura', the Internet backbone - the global mix of computers and communications that sustains cyberspace - makes mincemeat of every additional megabit per second (MBPS) of capacity that becomes available.

And why not? The number of Internet users worldwide, is said to double every ten days - and they demand an ever richer, pixel- hungry masala mix of content: plain emails which winged their way across the world in milliseconds were a novelty even two years ago; now we want to attach pictures of our loved ones, `talking letters', even video clippings of our daughter's wedding. That's a lot of global gigabytes whizzing around at any given second and it has created a new `digital divide' between those who can command the bandwidth necessary to handle all this heavy traffic - and those who can't.

Japan, UK, China, all countries which saw Internet `happen' much slower and later than the US, still managed to set up adequate bandwidths ranging from 60 to 160 Giga Bits Per Second (GBPS). Then there are nations like India, whose public, even after paying a heavy price by way of call charges has to put up with abysmal speeds on the Net and a minuscule bandwidth: currently around 300 MBPS. NASSCOM, the National Association of Software and Service Providers, estimated recently that the real demand in India at present, is more like 5 GBPS and this will become 40 GBPS by end 20001.

Harassed subscribers who succumb to the aggressive marketing and attractive package deals of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - both private and government-owned - soon find that connection speeds of 33 to 56 KBPS, the best that our telephone modems can currently deliver, mean nothing, because when they try to send or receive information - Web pages, pictures or just text-based email - the speed of the transaction drops sharply to a few bytes per second! It's an endless frustrating wait - and since we in India pay additionally to the telephone provider at local call rates, for all Internet time, the bimonthly bills mount. Those who live by the Net - like our much-in-demand software engineers - have even more to feel sorry about, because lack of adequate, reliable and affordable connectivity makes them less competitive in the fiercely aggressive international marketplace. Export opportunities of over $ 20 billion could be lost before 2005, if better bandwidth cannot be found warns NASSCOM's Dewang Mehta.Is the scenario uniformly bleak? Not quite. In the first half of this year, a number of initiatives, public and private have been launched with the aim of pushing India into the broadbanded league of nations.

On June 3, VSNL, the main external communications provider announced that new bandwidth was being added on a month-to-month basis... from 310 MBPS to 490 MBPS by July, to 1 GBPS ( that is, 1000 MBPS) within 12 months. Private ISPs , many of whom are about to launch their own international gateways may be able to ``buy'' additional bandwidth in the marketplace. In fact, the market place has come nearer home: last month a UK company called Band-X set up shop here, to hawk broadband access by a system of online auction to the highest bidder.

Broadband technologies

But if and when, this bigger data pipe is acquired - will the benefits reach the consumer? 'Aye, there's the rub!' Except in small pockets in a few metros, we just do not have the infrastructure to deliver broadband to the overwhelming majority of Internet users, unless they reside close to telephone exchanges. This is why:

There are in the main, four methods of providing higher bandwidth to the Internet surfer:

-Along existing copper or fibreoptic telephone lines using new technology like Digital Subscriber Line (DSL)

-Along digital-all-the way lines like Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN)

-Through the Cable TV network

-Direct-To-Home (DTH) through satellites linking to a private dish antenna in your backyard.

ISDN is a pricey option and all over the world, is used by institutions rather than individuals, because its main selling point is the ability to connect about half a dozen devices through a small exchange, to a single incoming line. It is not a mass consumer option.

Satellite delivery is a non-starter in India even if the cost of individual dishes were to come down, because the government is still dithering over the crucial decision: should Indians be allowed to downlink directly from the big bad world outside? However, a decision on DTH broadcasting has been promised by the Central government before the monsoon session of parliament begins on July 24.

That leaves only two options - cable or DSL : which puts us on par with most of the world. Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) which provides telecom services in Mumbai and Delhi, has promised to launch DSL services very shortly, for corporate customers. In Chennai, ETH Dishnet has been promoting DSL heavily, in recent days. Satyam, the pioneer private ISP, too is said to be keen to introduce DSL based broadband services.

What do they all mean by broadband? The term is generally used to refer to communication lines or services at what are called ``T1'' rates or above - that is better than 1.544 MBPS. The actual broadband signal could pack in a lot more punch - 30 MBPS has been commercially achieved. However broadband in consumer parlance means a bandwidth of between 25 to 100 times better than what is now achieved by the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) - which is 56 KBPS at best. The term also implies that data, voice and video can be sent and received without significant delay or distortion over extended periods. Moreover, the data and voice channels can ride side by side so to speak: you can receive a voice call even while you are surfing the Net, on the same line. In contrast the POTS way of doing this is what is known as baseband: voice and data share the same line; you can either receive a telephone call or browse the Net, but not at the same time.

DSL achieves this by some electronic tricks at the exchange end which converts the essentially analog telephone line into a digital system by the time it reaches you. It doesn't matter too much if the ``last mile '' to your house is copper; DSL will work as long as the sections from the broadband service provider to the exchange, are fibre optic. In practice, DSL works best when the communication network is predominantly fibre optic. It can deteriorate badly if the lines are a masala mix of old and not so old technologies. That is why even in the US, subscribers find that the hype about DSL is just that - practically achievable bandwidth is a disappointing 200-300 KBPS, and nowhere near the promised ``T1'' speeds.

One popular DSL technique is called ADSL - Asynchronous DSL. This provides faster speeds of download than upload: great if you usually get stuff from the Net rather than send stuff. But all DSL modes require the customer to invest in a special DSL modem that costs Rs 20,000 plus, today.

The other option - broadband through the cable TV network - has its attractions in a country like India where thousands of homes which do not own a telephone or a PC nevertheless have a TV set and a cable connection. There are an estimated 35 million cable TV connections in India - against 7 lakh telephone -Internet connections. The bandwidth of the TV cable is largely unutilised and if the cable operator invests in some additional equipment, he can provide Internet access - and something even more attractive: on-demand TV programmes, like last night's serial which you missed, as well as interactive programmes like home shopping.

subtitle: cable initiatives

However, cable-driven broadband links, too, call for special modems which in India are priced around Rs 10,000 ( compare this to the internal telephone-type modem for the PC, which can be had for just over Rs 1000). The bandwidth available for surfing via Cable (about 30 MBPS) is heavily dependent on how many others have the same idea at the same time: broadband will begin to look like narrowband if too many subscribers are online. This is a technology that is perceived to have the brightest future among broadband options in India and a number of players have committed their capital: Zee TV's cable arm, SitiCable and it's multimedia company, Zee Interactive Multimedia Ltd (ZIML) have budgeted Rs 2400 crores to cover 26 Indian cities, within 2 years, for Internet through cable using a hybrid of coaxial ( copper) and fibre optics. Reliance Industries, the ``Only Vimal'' people are also committed to bringing fibre optic based broadband services to over 100 cities in the same time frame. The national capital region in and around Delhi, is being wired with 300 km of fibreoptic cable by another provider, Spectranet, who hopes to launch broadband services including cable TV and video on demand, Internet on fibre and DSL from August.And on June 27, Dishnet DSL Ltd permitted by the state government to lay 5000 km of optical cable across Tamil Nadu over a three year period. The cellular provider Aircel and Reliance-World Tel are also engaged in wiring the state with fibre optics. Dishnet has also plans to link Tamil Nadu to Singapore with a 3360 km, 4-fibre, 2.5 terabits per second submarine cable, which it expects to commission by August 2001 - giving it a headstart with international broad bandwidth.

`River of numbers'

The Government, meanwhile, hopes to create a National Internet Backbone with three tiers of bandwidth depending on potential usage. Two weeks ago, it appointed a standing committee on Bandwidth under the aegis of the Telecom Commission. Government's first phase priority will be to take the dial-up services to 45 remote areas. Its major initiative in this direction has been the ``Sankhya Vahini'' (``River of numbers'') project. Recently approved by the Union Cabinet, this is a joint venture between the Indian Department of Telecom Services (DTS) and Inter- University Net (IUNet), a subsidiary of the famous US -based Carnegie Melon University. The President and CEO of IUNet is Dr VS Arunachalam, formerly the head of India's Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and later a distinguished service professor at Carnegie Mellon. A key inspirer of the project is Dr Raj Reddy for many years the head of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute.

Sankhya Vahini is conceived as a high bandwidth ( 2.5 to 40 GBPS) , all-India data network for education, healthcare and ``knowledge- oriented multimedia applications''. It will initially connect about 100 educational institutions and 10 metros at speeds at least 1000 times greater than what is currently available,using an existing 10,000 kms of existing fibre optics network as well as newly laid cable. It will use state-of-art technology like Deep or Ultra Deep Wave Division Multiplexing (DWDM, UDWDM) of optical fibres whereby every one of typically 40 fibres in a cable carries up to 10 GBPS of information.

There has been some apprehension, that some elements of Sankhya Vahini - data umbilicals that stretch back to US institutions - might pose a security threat. This is an ``occupational hazard'' that lies at the very root and concept of a global network like Internet. One way to avoid the problem is to say: ``This is too dangerous, let the Cyberevolution go on without me''. The other option is to weigh the advantages against the dangers; to ask: ``Can India which seeks its legitimate place in the world order, as a nation of 1 billion people, afford to say ''pass`` to major technology trends - or should it participate, taking all conceivable precautions to protect its national interest?''

This is the tough decision that faces our planners as they address the promise - and the perils - of becoming part of a worldwide broadband information network. Broadband has been called a ``footbridge across the digital divide'' that will soon separate the ``have'' nations from the ``have nots''. It has been quickly seized by commercial operators to add value and resell to new and emerging markets. Customers in many hotels abroad, are today offered broad pipes to the Internet which allows them to ``plug and play'' their own devices like notebooks or hand held computers, to access email and other multimedia services. The same broadband technology has been used in a public service programme called ``E-Rate'', which aims to link over 1 million US class rooms with Internet, a programme in which local cable TV providers participate by providing free access. Visit web sites like www.numtv.com (an initiative of the Sun TV network assisted by Pentamedia) or www.wahindia.com (created by Deli-based Punj Lloyd) to get a glimpse of the rich multimedia mix of information and entertainment that broadband can deliver. Listen to film maker ``GV'' ( G Venkateswaran) as he describes his vision of a library of hundreds of feature films, delivered to your home via broadband links.

William E Kennard the current chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which regulates the spread of telecom in that country has been wrestling with difficult decisions, like his counterparts in this country: how far should government go in regulating the spread of frontline telecom technologies -DSL, cable, fibre, satellite? His attitude and that of the government he represents should be of interest to our own policy makers. It is, he says, one of ``intentional restraint, born of humility that we cannot predict where the market is going.....we cannot regulate against problems that have yet to materialize in a market that has yet to develop''. In other words don't throttle a new technology because you do not understand it.

One thing is clear, as we face up to the exciting reach of broadband: it's a harsh competitive world out there and if you impede the flow of those digital bits through your system, they will flow over the platforms of your competitors, be they corporations - or nations.