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Getting Wired

Getting WiredIt used to require a Herculean effort to just get a simple telephone connection in India. As recently as five years ago (1999) telephone connections were expensive, and often very difficult to get - requiring numerous trips to the Government phone company offices and sometimes bribes or threats to get a connection. Telephone infrastructure was ancient, overloaded, and unreliable. Cellular phones were available in the main centers but were expensive and unreliable. Internet was possible only in the major cities and the bandwidth was pathetic and liable to frequent breaks in connection. Lease lines rates, if available at all, were astronomical and failed to deliver the promised bandwidth.

The past few years have seen a tremendous change in the quality and quantity of service. Telecom has probably been the fastest growing area in the entire economy and the results are impressive, particularly in the area of wireless communication. Cellular coverage has extended to most areas of the country and rates have plummeted. It is now possible to get a connection anywhere in a matter of hours by filling out a simple form (in triplicate with photo and proof of identity). Entry costs are almost unbelievably low and the rates are the lowest in the world - incoming calls are free and outgoing local calls are 5 to 10 US cents a minute. Recent developments in cellular technology make it possible to get the internet through your cellphone, so if you are technically capable (and fairly lucky) you should be able to plug your laptop into the net on the road here.

There are two types of service - Prepaid and PostPaid:

Prepaid requires that you regularly buy a "recharge card" that tops up your phone call limit. These cards are offered in a range of time spans from a few days to a full year, and in varying denominations. When you run down the call limit (or the time limit), you need to get new cards to top up your amounts. You can make interstate and international long distance cards with these phones if your call limit is high enough. "Roaming" over a large geographic area is also possible, with slightly higher rates applying.

Postpaid requires you to have a fixed address and ideally some long term connection to the country, like a company. You pay a deposit (from $20 to $200) depending on what calling area you opt for and are billed on usage at the end of the month.

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Cellular Connections

There are a range of companies offering cellular connections, and lots of shops selling the latest in cell phones at very reasonable prices. You are best to ask the locals in the area you want to get coverage which company is currently offering the best service, as this can change from time to time. If you will regular be shuttling between a number of cities you might want to see which companies, or their affiliates, offer the best total coverage.

There is also the question of what band your cell phone uses. Tri band phones work all over the country, and all over the world, but dual band or single band phones will not operate in all coverage areas. If you don't have a tri band phone you will have to check around. And even if a dual band phone works in one area of a company's coverage it may not work in a different state with the same company.

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Landline Connections

A standard landline connection is almost a thing of the past now. In fact, BSNL, the government telephone service most famous for its indifferent and lackluster service, is transforming itself in the face of the stiff completion from the independently owned and service savvy cell companies. First it launched programs to provide landline telephones immediately and on demand. Then it jumped into the wireless market and runs a competitive cell company as well.

Another development on the wireless phone scene has been in the form of CDMA phones, which, for some mysterious reason, the Indian government has licensed as a local wireless phone system though it is quite capable of functioning as a wide area cellular operation. Two companies, Tata Indicom and Reliance have jumped in to this area and offer local wireless phones with instant connections and cell phone like services. At the moment (early 2004) they are supposed to operate only as a local city-wide system but there is pressure to allow them to link up to other areas and go national as a cell service.

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Accessing the Internet

Internet connections have also increased in number and in quality in the past 5 years. There has been a proliferation of cyber cafes into even small towns and the bandwidth is approaching acceptable standards, especially in the larger centers. ADSL is available in major cities and a number of cable firms are offering "always on" connectivity via special lines. Large pipe lease lines for businesses are much more readily available and the prices have dropped dramatically, though they still lag seriously behind the West.

Most connections are via dial up lines, with all the limitations that presents. However, the new trend is to wireless and the CDMA phone companies are currently promising 128 kpbs connections via wireless. We don't have information currently as to how effective this service is, and it will undoubtedly vary from area to area so it is best to ask someone local who is using the system about it before making a final decision.

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Continued progress - with small snags

To sum it up, there have been dramatic and welcome changes in the Indian communication scene and there seems to be no end in sight. This competition has led to much better service and lower rates. Even long distance and international rates have plunged dramatically in the past year. However, local conditions can vary a lot and it is good to find who the best provider is locally. The companies still tend to put much more emphasis on signing up new customers than they do to dealing with problems of existing ones. It recently took us four months of regular badgering to get a small refund back from Tata Indicom. And it proved almost impossible to communicate a problem to our local cell operator AirTel. Their constantly changing call center operators seemed incapable of noting down the issue so each attempt never got beyond stage 1- " I'll look into it and have someone call you back". With increased communications comes increased miscommunication!

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