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Which Indian city will `unwire’ first?

Monday 10 April 2006, by PARTHASARATHY*Anand

Pune leads the race with first public Wi-Fi zone

Municipality offers free access in Pune, to be charged after 3 months Mysore shows it can be done Intel launches similar pilot scheme with Uttaranchal Government Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi, Chennai fall behind in creating municipal ’hot spots’

Bangalore: The news on Friday that San Francisco had short-listed search portal leader Google and another Web provider EarthLink, to create the world’s first city-wide free wireless Internet service has been greeted with cheers - and some caution from privacy advocates.

Closer home, in Pune, young net users, still getting used to free Web access in India’s first public wireless Internet zone, might be forgiven for saying, "Welcome to the club!"

In an initiative barely reported by the media, the Pune Cantonment Board (PCB) on March 26 joined with the public sector Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and two private telecom providers - HOL Infosolutions and Marvel - to create India’s first public Wi-Fi Internet access zone, stretching across sections of Mahatma Gandhi Road, which on weekends become a vehicle-free walking plaza.

Since then, hundreds of shoppers, tourists and residents in the houses lining the plaza have enjoyed high-speed Internet access, wirelessly, at a zippy two mega bits per second.

All they need to do is obtain a password after registration at a restaurant in the `hot zone’- then latch on to the Internet on their laptops or home PCs.

Introductory offer

The free access is a sort of `introductory offer’: after 3 months the PCB proposes to levy a small charge for the service. But `fee or free’ is less important than the fact that a civic body for the first time in India has extended the reach of a pervasive technology to citizens.

Lay `Punekars’ got to taste wireless Internet in a public spot almost 30 months after the technology was unveiled in the city when Tata Indicom created the first hot-spot for the Sun-n-Sand hotel in November 2003.

Race between civic bodies

In Pune, it has been something of a race between the two civic bodies that administer the city: the PCB’s initiative came within days of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) announcing an ambitious plan to make the entire Pune metropolitan area - including the Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal areas and the software technology park clusters in surrounding villages like Hinjewadi - one seamless wireless Internet zone by 2007.

Harnessing technology

It will harness two technologies: the short range Wi-Fi for the densely populated inner city and Wi-Max to reach the periphery. The PMC has budgeted Rs. 7 crore for the initiative and has partnered with Intel to make this happen.

The U.S.-based company has launched a pilot scheme on similar lines with the Uttaranchal Government. It is known to be in discussion with the Karnataka Government to implement a city-wide wireless zone in Bangalore. But the so called `leaders’ among Indian Information Technology destinations - Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and the satellite towns of Noida and Gurgaon around Delhi - have been conspicuous laggards in taking the benefits of such technology to their citizens.

A Frost and Sullivan survey last year found that 80 per cent of India’s public wireless hot-spots were in Bangalore city, but a closer look reveals that these are mostly in the lobbies of five star hotels or within upmarket apartment complexes.

Sify initiative

It is only the initiative of a private service provider such as Sify that saw dozens of the company’s `Infoway’ cyber cafes in the city offer affordable Wi-Fi-backed Internet services to the public.

The scene is no different in the other southern capitals where civic bodies have done little to harness such technologies for the ordinary tax payer, being generally content with scooping up the taxes that accrue when wealthy corporates and the hospitality industry exploits them for commercial gain.

Pune is not alone in seeing the potential of pervasive access technologies.

In the strict sense, Mysore was the first Indian town to be covered by a Wi-Fi umbrella. In October 2004, a private venture, WiFiyNet, used three towers to blanket the city with wireless internet coverage.

But inexplicably, its thrust was the home user rather than public outdoor access and the full potential for ubiquitous connectivity in Mysore remains unexplored.

Computing on the move

Market watcher IDC reported recently that the small-n-light notebook category saw the most spectacular sales graphs in India during 2005 - with a 173 per cent growth. Clearly, Indians in large numbers are taking to computing on the move.

It is a lesson that should persuade many more municipalities that creating affordable outdoor access to the Internet is not just a worthy civic duty. It could even mean hard-nosed business.

Pune has given voice to a new mindset that says: "Forget about pampering the already well-endowed technology companies. Take IT where it is needed most - to those who vote for you and pay your taxes."

See online : The Hindu

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