From BBS Configuration to Internet Consulting
Suchit Nanda and Live Wire!
IndiaLine, Sep'97 - Madanmohan Rao

"I first saw electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs) on a visit to the U.S. in 1989. I thought it would be great to set up something similar in India, so I launched a BBS from my bedroom using DOS-based shareware and a 1200 bps modem, with 5-6 users dialing in over my phone line between 10 pm and 7 am," Suchit Nanda recalls.

Today, Nanda has helped set up BBSs in several Indian cities - including Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Kolhapur, Baroda, Calcutta, Madras, Poona and Bombay - and has also consulted on setting up of Internet nodes in India, Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, and Mongolia.

"Though much attention these days is focused on the Internet and not BBSs, I think BBSs are still valuable tools for electronic communication - they can be effective, low-cost solutions for small organisations and students hoping to harness computer networks for information exchange," says Nanda.

Nanda studied electronics at Thadumal Shahani Engineering College in Bandra, Bombay. He was hooked onto computers right from the age of 10, and even co-authored a book on computer viruses - called "War on Viruses" - while he was in college. "It was the first computer book published in India to be released with a companion floppy disk," Nanda proudly recalls.

The early days of his BBS experiments were quite tough - and expensive, he says. "I decided to not only use BBSs for recreational purposes like hobbies, games and chat, but also showcase their international networking potential by linking up to global messaging systems like FidoNet," says Nanda.

This required dialing in to the nearest FidoNet node - Singapore, at that time - and exchanging messages. "My phone bills in the early days were sometimes as high as Rs. 20,000 a month," he says.

Support came not only from his family, but other networking enthusiasts and consultants like Jagdish Parikh (who was working with BBSs in Europe and Latin America) and Raj Mehta (based in Stanford). A London-based NGO network called GreenNet, working with humanitarian activist groups, helped out by dialing in directly to Nanda's BBS, so that he no longer needed to make international phone calls for swapping messages. He also began to charge annual membership fees for local users, starting at Rs. 1,000.

By the late 1980s, the ERNET initiative for Internet access had been launched in India, and Nanda was able to get an e-mail account from them. Regular users of his BBS - called LiveWire - ranged from computer hobbyists to non-governmental organisations like YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action). They exchanged software tips and files, Internet e-mail messages, and news and information from around the world; other activities included live chat and collaborative communication.

Soon Nanda's BBS was also a gateway for news and information from Africa in the West to the Philippines in the East. Other Indian BBS pioneers at that time included Kishore Bhargava and Atul Chitnis, who had set up BBSs in New Delhi and Bangalore.

Nanda realised that his single phone line was not going to be able to handle his own needs and those of his BBS users. "We used to really crank up the volume of the modem in my bedroom so that we could tell from the living room itself whether the call was for the BBS or a normal phone call," he recalls. Some users began to dial in much earlier in the evening than the prescribed limit of 10 pm.

"In those days, it took almost 7 years to get a phone line. If I needed to get more lines quickly, I would have to take unusual steps," says Nanda. So he spoke directly to a general manager at MTNL - and to his luck, was able to convince him of the importance and use of BBSs.

"I received more lines within a week," Nanda recalls with incredulity. Today, his set-up at his apartment in Powai includes 39 phone lines and a network of 10 machines including two Windows NT servers; users can choose a variety of proprietary or Web-enabled interfaces including Netscape and Explorer.

LiveWire's subscribers now account for about 3,000 login identifications. The one-time start-up fee is Rs. 500; users wanting access to shareware pay Rs. 500 per year, e-mail users pay Rs. 750 annually. There are other pricing schemes for heavy users of the system. "We do not charge by the size of the message or the file, or their number," says Nanda.

"There are only about 30 BBSs in India; there may be more, but they do not often operate for more than a few months," he says. By 1994, other e-mail messaging systems like Dart, GEMS, Business India and ICNet had sprung up in India; a year later VSNL offered commercial and consumer Internet access to e-mail and the Web.

Raising awareness about BBSs and electronic communication was sometimes a problem, Nanda recalls. "There were telephone officials who used to scream that if I used high-speed modems, it would fry their telephone lines," he says with amusement.

There was also a lot of confusion about license fees for BBS operators and commercial e-mail service providers. "The government actually wanted BBS operators - even if they were running a free service from home on a shoe-string budget - to shell out Rs. 30 lakhs in license fees. It was ridiculous," he says.

It is this kind of regulatory confusion which continues to hamper the growth of BBSs and the Internet in India, according to Nanda.

"Our policymakers have not demonstrated enough vision. They have the power to bring about sweeping change, but seem quite clueless. We are certainly late in the game - our ISP policy has not come out as yet - but I don't think we will miss the Internet bus," says Nanda.

"Indians definitely have the brains and talent to harness the Internet. But the regulatory environment must improve - these archaic rules have just got to go," says Nanda.

He has consulted for setting up of Internet nodes in Bangladesh (for the Grameen Bank), Cambodia, China, and, most recently, in Mongolia. Nanda observes that though the bureaucrats he met in those countries may not have seemed Net savvy, they were very willing to explore the potential of new technologies and move their country rapidly into the information age.

Other than policy, language may be a challenge for diffusion of BBSs and the Net in India, for reasons like lack of standardisation of Indian language software. Even at an international level, some language standards set by the ISO have not been accepted in countries like Sri Lanka, says Nanda.

Notable organisations involved in Internet infrastructure in developing countries include Canada's International Development Research Centre, who recently conducted a Pan-Asia survey of network access and trends, in which Nanda played a role via research and training programs in Singapore.

"More attention needs to be paid to setting up of BBSs in India," says Nanda. BBSs are quite secure, and can be set up quite easily within a few hours. They are also simpler to use than the Net, though they do not scale up very well to larger numbers of users. BBSs have evolved in functionality and sophistication over the years, and some of the major systems are now fully Web-enabled. "It was BBSs that first brought the networking medium to the masses," says Nanda.

Some of Nanda's future plans include moving to an upcoming office building in Hiranandani Gardens, Powai, and wiring it so that every office will have a direct ethernet link to a local area network connected to his BBS. "I also intend to become an ISP once the new policy comes into effect. That way, I will be able to create the first Internet-enabled office building in India," he enthuses.

Such efforts need to be undertaken on a greater scale, he says, since the Internet has the potential of "changing the way the country feels and functions" - right from education and training to the software and exports sector. "With the Net, our software companies will be able to tap multimillion dollar contracts from abroad. Currently, countries like Ireland are better placed for such opportunities because of better infrastructure," says Nanda.

"We seem to be bottling up our own potential, our own opportunities, instead of unleashing it like Singapore or Hong Kong. Other countries around the globe - smaller ones, even communist ones - are taking rapid strides ahead, but we are just sitting on the future," Nanda concludes.

Last update: Jan 1998