How India connected to the internet 25 years ago
Commercial internet services were launched across India on the eve of Independence Day in 1995. Lounge takes a look back at how it all started
With more than half a billion internet users, India is one of the biggest and fastest-growing internet economies in the world, second only to China—be it in terms of the number of internet connections or the volume of apps downloaded. But the foundations of the internet in India were laid down just over three decades ago, in 1986, through the Education and Research Network (Ernet) Project.
Launched by the Union government with funding from the UN Development Programme, Ernet aided research and development across eight institutions. A decade later, on 14 August 1995, commercial internet services were rolled out by the state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL). A 15 August headline in The Times Of India read: “Independence Day to mean freedom with the Internet".
Reaching this stage, however, was no easy task. Gopi Garge, who started as a project assistant at Ernet in 1988 and was part of the project till 2012, recalls: “The internet was just sprouting out of labs in the US and a few places in Europe. The idea was to bring this technology and actually set up a network in India." The eight institutions selected for this task were the National Centre for Software Technology (NCST) in Mumbai—now known as the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing—the erstwhile department of electronics in the Union government, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and five Indian Institutes of Technology (Madras, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur and Kharagpur).
One of the eight project coordinators was Srinivasan Ramani, who was instrumental in getting the internet to India. In 1983, he had proposed the creation of an Indian academic network. Ramani was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014, an honorary lifetime achievement award presented by the Internet Society, for his pioneering work.
Writing for the Asia Internet History Projects, an initiative mapping the internet’s history in the region, Ramani recalls how Ernet started UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy Protocol) email exchanges between NCST and IIT, Bombay in 1986-87 and established TCP/IP connectivity between major cities in 1988-89.
Garge, 58, explains in a Zoom call from Milton Keynes, UK, that these UUCP systems would dial into each other to send emails and information, “enabling the transfer of files from one system to another". The system at the NCST was called “Shakti" (power), while the one at IISc was named “Turing", after the renowned British computer scientist Alan Turing. There were similar systems at each institution, enabling the first nationwide email network, he adds.
Each centre was known as an “Ernet project node". “In the larger scope of the physical network, they became what we call ‘backbone nodes,’ housed in Network Operations Centres, or NOCs. Ernet had a topology that interconnected all our backbone nodes in the NOCs, where all the regional institutions would connect to. At each of these Ernet nodes, we also had provisions to provide local connectivity," says Garge.
The project morphed into an autonomous Ernet India Society. “We had about 600 institutions across India on the network," Garge says. It hosted educational content for everyone and helped newer institutions understand the technology and manage their networks. This was the genesis of the National Knowledge Network, which today connects research and educational bodies across the country.
There was another information-sharing mechanism running parallelly—the “bulletin board system". “It was a very primitive precursor of the web," says Garge. “It’s a single system where you have one telephone line and one modem. You have a set of users who log in one at a time and leave messages, read messages from the others, and then log off. Then somebody else logs on," he adds.
Apart from the growing popularity of such systems, the 1990s were a seminal phase for technological breakthroughs. In December 1990, Tim Berners-Lee first tested the “World Wide Web" software. In 1995, the Global Positioning System (GPS) became fully functional. And, just days after the internet was launched in India in August 1995, Bill Gates, then chairman of Microsoft, unveiled the Windows 95 operating system, which would go on to sell 40 million copies in its first year.
“In 1991, the country started opening up. There was a cry as to how we should use our knowledge-based capital.... We were one of the largest powers in sciences, technology and engineering, next to the US and (erstwhile) USSR. The software industry was raring to go," says Brijendra K. Syngal, former chairman and managing director of the erstwhile VSNL. “When we started providing digital connectivity (to certain software companies in the form of 64 kbps lines in 1992), the question arose: What about the common people? How do we connect them to the rest of the world?" says the 80-year-old.
Syngal says the internet was just “beginning to bloom" back then. There were also constant nudges from the Telecom Commission on rolling out commercial internet services. “When we looked around, we found that it was only in Japan and Hong Kong. Singapore was still experimenting and had not started providing commercial services. This was around October-November 1994," Syngal recalls.
As he writes in his recent book Telecom Man, the key component was connectivity to an internet service provider outside India. The choices were limited. “We could get to Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, the US and the UK. We zeroed in on 128 kbps lines to these countries. Simultaneously, we started setting up the hardware."
Beta testing of the service was conducted in July 1995. Citizens such as Vijay Mukhi, Miheer Mafatlal and actor Shammi Kapoor, who together founded the Internet Users Club of India, an early internet evangelists’ club, dialled in informally to use the service. They were among the handful of people who had received beta accounts from Apple when it had launched its eWorld online service in 1994. “These people had become early converts to the internet," writes Syngal. “So when VSNL introduced the internet in the country, they were happy to be around to bounce off ideas and suggest ways to make the service more user-friendly."
But there were challenges when Indian cyberspace was opened up. The early days were beset with hardware and connectivity issues. “We chose five cities, the four metros and Pune. These five stations were ready," says Syngal. “We were quite happy that the modems were working but there were problems on some data lines. There used to be a beep after every 3 minutes to warn the customer (on call duration).... This beep used to interfere with the (communication) handshakes of the modems."
The “3-minute beep issue" was fixed, and the concept of a “toll-free number" introduced for users dialling in from other cities to connect to the internet. With this five-digit number from the department of telecommunications, you could dial in and log in from one of the five cities without paying STD (subscriber trunk dialling) charges. For example, a user in Dibrugarh, Assam, could dial into the Kolkata node.
Interestingly, commercial internet services were not available in China at the time. In fact, the Chinese vice-minister visited VSNL in 1996 “to learn the tricks of the trade", Syngal writes in his book.
According to a report in the Times Of India from 15 August, 1995, the basic tariff for an individual user, for a 9.6 kbps dial-up connection, was fixed at ₹5,000 per month, for 250 hours of usage. Commercial or corporate accounts would cost ₹20,000-25,000. As Syngal writes in his book, the prices were, quite simply, “too high".
While they did come down almost immediately, Syngal admits affordability was, and still is, a big factor—even though India now has some of the cheapest mobile data prices in the world at ₹7 per GB, according to Nokia’s annual Mobile Broadband India Traffic Index (MBiT) report, released in February.
For internet penetration has a long way to go. “The number of internet users are touted at 700 million. But let’s be realistic. We have to tally this with the number of smartphones, which are internet-enabled. Cellular technology is practically everywhere. But the question is, how many of these cellular users are interested in using internet-related services, accompanied by affordability, which applies not only to the service but the device as well?" asks Syngal.
Nevertheless, he says, the internet did bring about a revolution. “If you compare the GDP at that point and what it is today, all this couldn’t have been possible without digital connectivity and the internet....These 25 years will be a speck in the near future."