India's E-mail Evangelist Hopes to Win Converts to Internet

Ketan Shah is a latter-day missionary. Call him an e-mail evangelist if you like. Armed with a master's degree in computer science from the United States and with a nose for a burgeoning market, Mr. Shah is taking the Internet to India.

Shah hopes to win converts in Calcutta's schools, where he uses nothing more high-tech than chalk and a blackboard to lecture children about the possibilities of surfing the World Wide Web.

"Right now, I'm just selling the concept, telling them what the Internet is. Eventually though, I want every school and college to be on the Net," declares Shah, who worked for six years as a telecommunications engineer in Dallas before returning to Calcutta.

In this nation of 800 million people, where telephones are a luxury and computers still relatively rare, Shah's ambition is grand indeed. A late starter on the information superhighway, India only opened its first Internet service in August last year. Today there are just over 30,000 Internet users in India, compared with 100,000 in tiny Singapore.

By taking his message to India's schools, Shah is hoping that his young converts will bring the good news home to their parents. "If you can get the kids interested, they will tell their parents. If a son tells his father about the Net, he can be much more convincing than me," he says

The hub for Shah's "Net quest" is his Cyber Amigo Cafe. Opened in October last year in Calcutta's upscale Park Hotel, the Cyber Amigo Cafe boasts six terminals and its own high-speed satellite link - the safest way round India's crackling telephone lines, says Shah.

In a city better know for its pollution and poverty, Shah's Cyber Cafe is an unexpected oasis of modems and megabytes. "It's more like a club with Internet facilities," says Shah, who charges students $111 a year for 100 hours of Web surfing time. "We are trying to get like-minded people together," he explains. "We want people to establish Net friendships and we're even thinking of setting up some Net dating."

The greatest obstacle to Shah's internet dreams could be the Indian government. Wary of opening its frontiers to the anarchy of the Net and surely loath to see its grip on domestic telecommunications weakened, India's regulators have absorbed the Web into a tightly controlled state monopoly.

"The government likes the Internet because they have a monopoly over it. But right now the costs are too high," complains Shah, who wants to see access to the internet privatized. "The government fixes a price, and if you don't like it, well, that's too bad. One time the server went down for 24 hours. That's unthinkable in a competitive market."

"There's just so much red tape," moans Shah, before noting that subscribers to the Indian government's VSNL Internet service have a 1 in 20 chance of getting a connection in major cities like Delhi and Bombay.

Missionary or no, Shah is hoping that his e-mail evangelism will eventually lead to a profit. By pioneering an Internet service, Shah reckons he'll be among the best placed to grow rapidly when, and if, the Indian government does decide to privatize Internet access. "My strategy is just to prepare for the day when they privatize," adds Shah, who forecasts he'll be turning a profit within the next two years.

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