It began with a bang in September 1998. Nearly three years later, Sam Pitroda-inspired World Tel's Community Internet Center (CIC) project in Tamil Nadu has ended in a whimper. The World Tel consortium has sent a formal withdrawal letter this week to its partner in Tamil
Three years back, when it was launched, it was an ambitious venture with a noble cause. It aimed to set up an optical fiber cable (OFC) cable network across the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu. Over 1,000 CICs were planned to be set up in major cities, towns and key villages. These centers would become the nerve centers of information dissemination on a range of topics to the people. And the project had the backing of the State government, besides the London-based WorldTel India Group Holdings. WorldTel itself is a consortium backed by United Nation's International Telecom Union
(ITU), Reliance Group, GE Capital, NatWest and Intel. It had everything going for it.
Why has this ambitious venture bit the dust within three years, even before it took off? It certainly needs a careful study by management experts. For a project aiming to take the benefits of Internet to the masses, it was too ambitious and may have ignored the ground realities. It was conceived with the noble intent of providing instant access to the global computer network, at the height of the Internet mania sweeping the world. It seems the demand for information access was not assessed properly at that time.Â
The project was conceived at a time when Internet access in the State and the country was limited to the government-owned VSNL as the sole ISP. The landscape has changed considerably since then. A few months later, the ISP business was thrown open to the private sector. Nearly 400 companies queued up to get licenses to provide Internet access at three levels -national, regional and small geographical area wise. The marketing skills of the private sector has expanded the Net coverage area immensely. There are not too many towns in the State which does not have cyber cafes and Internet nodes, provided by private and public companies now. Email continues to be most popular application on the Net.Â
The project's success depended on the availability of a host of applications and services that people would be very keen to access from these centers. This has been slow to happen. Various government agencies are still testing a host of services which could be made available through the Net. Till this happens, the demand for Net access will continue to be low. And once this happens, the market will step in to cater to the demand. It may be remembered that it was not the presence of high tech telephone exchanged that led to the telecom revolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It happened due to the foresight of the entrepreneurs who risked their savings to set up STD booths in every nook and corner and keeping them operation round-the-clock that helped to provide telecom services.Â
If the demand for Net-based applications and services had been created, similarly private initiative would have fulfilled the need. Instead, the WorldTel project relied on government patronage. A similar experiment has been planned in five other States too. It would be interesting to watch whether WorldTel would succeed with the same model elsewhere.