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Points Of Presence

Editorial Director, Communications ASP

[January 12, 2001]

Convergence Is the Monkey On India's Back

Thousands of monkeys are invading government buildings in New Delhi, India, attacking government workers, stealing food, and wreaking havoc in offices. Government officials estimate there are at least 10,000 monkeys on the loose in and around the country's center of power. Because the monkey has sacred status in India, killing the animals is not an option for control, nor is rounding them up and shipping them to neighboring areas, as those areas are having their own monkey problems. Workers and residents are simply arming themselves with rocks and sticks to scare away the animals, and trying to go about their business. The problem is overpopulation -- and some environmentalists say it's not the furry primate population, but human overcrowding in previously rural areas that's forcing the animals into city streets and buildings looking for food.

It's amazing how the simple convergence of two primate mammals in a common space is causing such an uproar, and basically forcing the human population of New Delhi to adapt to their new circumstances (I'm particularly sympathetic to the cleaning crews in those government buildings). Convergence, by its very nature, leads to change. And the same population growth that has led to monkey madness in the halls of the Indian government is bringing about the need for another kind of convergence -- that of voice and data.

In fact, government officials are drafting a Communication Convergence Bill that stands to propel the country into the information age, making broad changes to its communication policy structure and most likely legalizing Voice over IP. In a country where 78 percent of the population reside in a rural area, but only 18 percent of the country's telephones are located in those same areas, the bill is a major step toward the ultimate goal of privatizing telecommunications and modernizing the country's villages.

The Bill would institute a Convergence Act, replacing India's 1885 Telegraph Act, which features separate rules for the delivery of voice and data and outlaws Internet telephony. Currently, the country's Ministry of Communications is the umbrella authority for the Department of Telecom, while the Ministry of Information Technology governs data transmission. Telecommunications are also regulated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

Government officials have been divided on the issue of convergence and have been postponing action on it since 1999. Many high-ranking officials stand to lose out if the Convergence Bill passes, since it would shake up the country's political structure, consolidating the Ministries of Communications, Information Technology, and Information and Broadcasting into one Convergence Ministry or Convergence Commission. Last week, the Planning Commission of India recommended legalizing Internet telephony, while the Group on Convergence, made up of high-ranking officials from several ministries, postponed a meeting on the proposed bill (I wonder if monkey antics had anything to do with the delay?)

A report posted on Yahoo India this week said the government is nearing completion of a regulatory framework for convergence and a draft bill is almost ready; it will be posted on the government's Web sites for industry feedback and suggestions. The bill will likely be introduced to Parliament in the upcoming budget season, and would not be passed until the winter (or monsoon) session, which begins in July -- if it passes at all.

Seizing the opportunities offered by the burgeoning Indian IT market, Cisco CEO John T. Chambers will arrive in India this weekend to meet with the prime minister as well as the Minister of Information Technology, Pramod Mahajan, promoting convergence as a major market opportunity for Cisco. The visit will culminate in Cisco's Networking Summit -- the Solutions Showcase 2001 in New Delhi, where Chambers will deliver the keynote address.

Several telecom industry associations are also pushing for clearance of the bill, and VoIP gateway manufacturer Arelnet is looking for Indian partners as it expects VoIP to be legalized there soon. The company hopes to set up a direct presence in India by the middle of 2001, and is also talking with Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (VSNL), the country's incumbent telco, about partnership opportunities.

As an observer of the VoIP market for a couple of years now, I have watched convergence grow from the topic du jour -- a must for any serious company in the telecommunications space -- to an accepted norm (at least in the U.S. market). Just about every company in this space offers a "converged" solution for voice and data, and whether they've actually gotten these networks to interoperate or not, they're at least working on it. India realizes the importance of ushering in convergence to gain access to a greater marketplace, and the economic and technological benefits it will bring. But convergence stands to throw a monkey wrench into the country's bureaucracy, and Parliament will have to decide where its priorities lie when the time comes to vote on the Convergence Bill. If New Delhi's ability to adapt to its thousands of new mischievous residents is any indication, I'd say India is ready to take on the burden of communications convergence.

Laura Guevin welcomes your comments at lguevin@tmcnet.com.

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