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In the last two decades, the Internet has come a long way from those dial-up days and agonising waits. But we are still behind time

Devangshu Datta 

Some sounds are unforgettable: the cough of a leopard on the hunt, the crash-crack of an automatic rifle, the wail-click-whistle of whales chatting, the squeal-hiss of a dial-up modem "handshaking". Back in 1995, when a 56 kbps (kilobytes per second) modem was state-of-the-art, I would hear that noise umpteen times a day.

The dial-up ritual went this way. First, initiate a call from my computer (Assembled Windows 3.1 system) via the modem hooked into the POTS (plain old telephone service) landline. The modem would make musical tone-dialling noises. Then there would be the "tring-bring" of landline connection. A brief silence. Long minutes of bubbling squeals overlaid with static hiss. Finally, if I was lucky, the squeals would cut off into blessed silence and a terminal would pop up on screen, demanding user-name and password. More often, the silence would be followed by a failure message and I'd repeat the process.

Thankfully, I have not heard that sound for a very long time. India has moved on - to broadband DSL and fast mobile net-access. But dial up was the way to go in August 1995, when VSNL (Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd), then a government-owned monopoly (it is now Tata Communications), began offering Internet services to the populace at large.

India actually had Internet access in the late 1980s, but it was limited to a few educational institutions and so, it was an occasional treat for those of us who did not work in academia. The Internet was still difficult to get to in 1995.

But it was addictive. Once you got there, there were all sorts of things to do. It was free space then. Nobody knew or cared what you said. Forget about filters, or censorship. Even the US hadn't gotten around to basic surveillance.

In India, North Block and South Block were apparently unaware that the Net existed, even though Net access came via one government monopoly (VSNL), and was delivered on lines run by another monopoly (BSNL/ MTNL). There was no IT Act or Section 66A of the IT Act (Rules). So you could thumb your nose at anyone, and have a flame war about anything on a bulletin board. You could also sort-of-have-sex with a stranger in a chat-room and, probably most satisfyingly, discuss shopping for pipe-tobacco in Italy with a stranger sitting in Thailand.

Initially all this happened through a text terminal, typing out everything, or via the Lynx browser provided by VSNL. Then, Netscape Navigator happened. Netscape was this wonderful graphics-driven browser provided free by Marc Andreessen & co. It took loads of time to download on a dial-up.

Once installed, it gave you a graphic interface and all sorts of bells and whistles. Netscape pioneered in use of Javascript and it was a major contributor to the Secure Socket Layer (SSL), which is still the basic method of ensuring secure communications.

The Navigator opened up a new range of graphic-driven, mouse operated websites, which were invisible on text browsing. For example, using Netscape, instead of just typing "Ooh! Aah!" in a text-only sex chat room, you could now use a cartoon avatar to type "Ooh! Aah". Apparently that made it all a great deal more fun.

You could, equally usefully, map a route for smuggling condoms into Ireland (where they were illegal, or at least in short supply). A friend of mine did that, tying up an order with a pharmacist in Liverpool and finding buyers in Dublin, circa 1997. That e-commerce deal felt like magic, although it's old hat in the era of the Silk Road 2.0.

Hotmail in 1996 was another game-changer. VSNL offered an email id, which would be something like evdatdel39714@gias01.vsnl.net.in. Quite apart from the stress of asking people to type this gibberish, the mail box could be accessed only by logging in from the associated VSNL account. Corporate email ids could only be accessed from inside offices, student ids only from within campus. Hotmail (designed and promoted by apna desi Sabeer Bhatia) removed those constraints. Anybody could open a hotmail account and log in anywhere, be they students, corporate wage slaves or randomly unemployed. Like Netscape, Hotmail was free. But Internet access was incredibly, unbelievably expensive for Indians. Access was also restricted by VSNL's babu-driven rules. The Americans had moved to $20/month, always-on Internet connections, at 512 kbps by 1996. That translated to the equivalent of Rs 700 for 5,040 hours at the going rate of Rs 35 per dollar - so, less than 15 paisa an hour.

In contrast, VSNL's cheapest connection came at a maximum speed of 56 kbps (usually much lower). It offered 500 hours a year at Rs 15,000 (plus a registration fee of Rs 500). Plus, subscribers paid MTNL 60 paise a minute for every minute spent online, amounting to another Rs 36 an hour. So the costs were Rs 66 per hour for a connection running at less than one-tenth as fast as going speeds elsewhere.

In addition to the gouging, VSNL demanded potential subscribers fill in a looooong form, with many pages of details and formal endorsement from a gazetted officer. In effect, this made Net access the privilege of the desi elite.

In Silicon Valley or Seoul, middle-class kids created billion-dollar businesses on the Net. In India, you could whistle. The loss in terms of missed opportunities is, literally, incalculable. It is one monstrous example of a population being deprived of economic opportunities by a rapacious government. It was one reason why the Internet bubble of 1999-2000 felt utterly unreal, even to those of us who were lucky enough to have Net access at the time.

Early search engines were hit-or-miss. Altavista and Lycos, two early search engines I can remember using, predated Google. The indexing was random and so was the whole keyword search. The adventurous supplemented search via engines in many ways, often just by asking people.

There was also the sheer joy of getting around bulletin boards, usenet and alt. groups, just following through masses of links. Hypertext was still relatively new in 1995-96 and people who created web pages used links simply because they could.

Contemporary surfers of the Dark Web and Deep Web will understand this feeling, perhaps. The joy of getting onto an onion router and just riding around the wild side is somewhat akin to something we experienced every day back in the 1990s. Alt groups, tripod and geocities were also the prototypes that evolved into the blogs of the early 2000s. Some of the content was good, most was not. Not much has changed in that respect.

Another big thing was the development of peer-to-peer networks. Music, videos, films and books suddenly became available easily, even if the downloads were illegal. Napster almost destroyed the music recording industry, mainly because the industry reacted so stupidly to the disruptive influence. People stopped buying albums. But Tunes later showed that they would download singles legally at the right price.

By the mid-2000s, net access was much easier in India, though the desi Net remains slow and expensive. The e-commerce opportunities, social media penetration and Net access on mobile have created incentives and brought down more barriers in the last decade. But India is a couple of generations behind in terms of technology - 3G is hard to find, and 4G is only available in a few places. Mobile data rates are on the high side of affordable.

People are more circumspect (unless they are protected by political dispensation) in speech and action. All the filtering and the censorship laws have created a chilling effect, coupled with the threat and reality of mass-surveillance. There has also been pushback. More ordinary surfers now use encryption in mails and many use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to conceal surfing patterns.

I don't know where the Internet will be by 2020. But it will be vastly different from 2015, just as 2015 is very different from 2005. Your personal vehicle and your home appliances will be online by 2020 and you will probably get a rock solid mobile connection everywhere.

The Internet circa 2020 will be much more conveniently accessible than it was in 1995 when you logged in on a dial up, waited for the squeals to end and then laboriously typed in passwords. But it might not be as much fun as it was.

First Published: Sat, July 25 2015. 00:24 IST
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