Opinion | After 25 years, India's Internet story is still playing out its infancy

Opinion | After 25 years, India's Internet story still playing out its infancy
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It was in the 1990s when technological breakthroughs across the world started narrating the future, that India, widely considered then a powerhouse of science and engineering talents, envisaged a way to connect its billion people.

But its foundations had already been laid years ago, in 1986, with the introduction of the UN-backed Education and Research Network (Ernet) Project. Though restricted to just eight institutions at the time, the success of Ernet spawned a desire for a more extensive rollout.

The subsequent years saw networks set up at various places, but these were mostly confined within the walls of academic institutions and a handful of companies, far from the reaches of a common man.

Also, the software that enabled the true democratisation of the Internet had yet been invented – the web browser.

It was in 1993 that Mosaic, the first web browser, was released. This set the ball rolling in India.

The state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) was given the green light and on August 15, 1995, Internet service was launched for the public in India. It was available from all the four metros – Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata – and by the end of the first year, in Pune and Bangalore as well, helping them become the IT hubs that they are today.

Despite early setbacks, VSNL, having garnered over 10,000 subscribers within the first six months of its launch, persevered.

But Internet use in India remained less attractive to many in part because of the slow network and hefty pricing.

VSNL Internet Rates from 1990s

In 2004, when the government formulated its broadband policy – an “always-on Internet connectivity”, usage in the country started to gain momentum.

The entry of private players too made a significant difference.

From just VSNL in 1995, there are now 358 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in India today. The ten largest ISPs alone account for 99.50 per cent of the total subscriber base.

Now, 25 years later, India is one of the biggest and fastest-growing internet economies in the world, second only to China. Over half a billion people use the Internet here – that's 34.2 per cent of the country's total population.

With increasing rural penetration and falling prices, it is estimated that this number would rise even further, to 72 per cent by 2030.

The top 30 cities alone constitute 75 per cent of the total Internet usage in the country. But the availability of cheap smartphones is helping bridge India's 'digital divide'. According to a 2019 World Economic Forum (WEF) report, about 80 per cent of India's subscriber base access Internet on mobile devices.

Even as government initiatives like Digital India strive to equip the last person in the remotest village with the powers that Internet bestows, censorship issues, as was the case in Jammu and Kashmir, are potential hazards.

With our lives now becoming more ensnared in digital platforms and virtual services, the government has also started paying a closer attention to what these digital platforms are and who they benefit most. The recent ban on Tik Tok is a step in this direction.

The popular video-sharing app, which had its largest user-base in India, was banned by the Indian government for its close links with China.

Internet is still in its infancy. There's no telling where it can go. Only one thing is certain, with the largest young demographic in the world, India has much to gain from it.

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