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January 30, 2003

 
In October 2002 I wrote about non-existent security for Indiatimes email users (about which 'til date exactly zilch has been done). While browsing around, I discovered that things are even worse than they appear if you use any Indiatimes password-protected feature with the "Remember Me" feature checked: this includes their Cricket site, PhotoGallery and Filmfare. The same password is used for (ouch) their shopping and classifieds-submission sites. If you are one of these users, anyone with access to your desktop (common in shared environments) can grab your Indiatimes login and password, no network sniffer required! All they have to do is fire up a browser (IE will do nicely), browse over to this very helpful URL and grab the username and password off the source of the XML page that results.

Okay, so at least it's not remotely exploitable. I think. (Probably not until someone writes a worm/virus that exploits this particular flaw.) Still, somebody ought to tell these guys that passwords for portals with pan-India ambitions should be managed slightly better. Yahoo would have their heads bitten off if they did something like this.

(Note: in the interest of responsible disclosure, Indiatimes was notified before posting this.)

 

January 25, 2003

 
I wonder if the hike in local-call-tariffs will affect dial-up internet users -- anybody who dials a 172xxx SancharNet number to access the Net through a dial-up ISP like Sify and VSNL at discounted rates of upto Rs12/hr at night. If so, then dial-up users unfortunately become collateral damage. In the long run, it would do these ISPs a world of good if they could convert as many of these dial-up users to broadband. But given that dial-up is with us for some more time, they could pick a leaf or two out of ISP's like Blueyonder, who offer plans like SurfUnlimited, which has a special unmetered telephone line just for data. Touchtel already advertises a scheme along these lines, and there's no reason why Sify/VSNL could not enter into a revenue-sharing agreement with BSNL and offer a toll-free number for dial-up users to use.

 

 
ToI: Telecom operators shun comment on TRAI tariff. I missed this point in the TRAI recommendation: WLL operators are now free to determine their own tariffs, and are not linked to fixed-line rates anymore. Bing! Looks like Reliance's 20p/minute (or 5p per 15s pulse) plan will be making a comeback after all.

The linked article makes amusing reading incidentally: According to the basic telecom industry, TRAI had ushered in a Calling Party Pays (CPP) regime through the back door and thus lost out in the battle as they would now be paying to cellular operators on equal basis. So CPP is now a bad thing?

Cellular operators cried foul over TRAI giving free hand to WLL operators to determine their tariffs. And why shouldn't they?

They also decried TRAI announcing free incoming calls on cell phones without levying any additional fixed charges. If this quote is accurate, I'd be surprised -- cellcos have been asking for this for some time now, it's unthinkable that they won't pass on the benefit to their subscribers.

Overall, the TRAI seems to have redeemed itself this time -- the proposal seems to be quite fair to all parties (curmudgeons protesting the local-call-tariff hike notwithstanding).

 

 
For those who ask how does the customer gain from hiked local call prices: for a nation as large and heterogenous as India, the business efficiencies brought about by cheaper long-distance communication is a huge win: for inter-state commerce, for improved business response times, for increased competition. These business efficiencies will trickle down to the individual too.

 

 
The TRAI recommendations are out (coverage from Rediff, Sify), and they aren't as bad as the Financial Express thought it would be. Key points: local call charges have been hiked, and one of the biggest bugbears of the cellcos, termination charges, has been addressed: fixed line and WLL operators will pay a fee to cellcos for calls to their network. This means that we are finally getting away from the notion that cellphone use is somehow an elite activity, something only the well-heeled (who can afford to pay for the privilege of receiving calls) do, and can finally see Calling-Party-Pays in India. Of course, cellcos will continue to pay termination charges to fixed and WLL operators.

I'm happy about this for one reason: cellcos can now quit weaseling about the "unfair playing field" (the same unfair playing field that they were happy to play on for years before they saw real competition in Reliance) and compete on merits. What'll be even cooler is if the TRAI removes the fiction of "limited mobility" (a.k.a castration of technology by government fiat) and allowed WLL operators to allow full-mobility services after paying the necessary fees. Given that the Ambanis and Pramod Mahajan is open to this, I expect this to happen within the next three months. This is a win-win for everyone as far as I see: companies compete on their strengths, customers get real choice in choosing services based on what is important to them, the telecom market itself grows:

  GSM Networks CDMA 2000 Networks Copper Line Networks
Cost of connection Low Low High
Cost of equipment (handset) Low High Very Low
Local call cost High High Low (even after removing subsidy)
Long distance call cost (assuming LD provider provides equal access) Higher than local Higher than local Higher than local
Data rate 9.6k/s (shared) 144k/s (shared) 56k/s
Cost of upgrading network for medium-speed data (120k/s) Substantial None High (to ISDN)
Cost of upgrading network for high-speed data (2M/s) High Negligible Very high (to DSL)
Mobility Yes Yes Limited (cordless solutions)

It's pretty apparent that GSM cellcos have a real opportunity to rule the mobile voice market, given dirt-cheap handsets (This is CDMA's Achilles' Heel). Mobile CDMA networks (even limited mobile ones) will rule the mobile data market in the near term if they can deploy CDMA 2000 1XEV-DO quickly. Despite what they say, I think GSM cellcos in India will have trouble deploying 3G/WCDMA -- even now, except for BPL in Bombay, cellcos' 2.5G/MMS plans are vaporware (Airtel is particularly galling, with a its-here-real-soon-now announcement every six months). Considering the serious issues 3G/WCDMA has with carrier/handset compatibility and backward compatiblity, I don't see 3G offerings from Indian GSM cellcos at affordable prices anytime soon.

And of course, you cannot afford to forget that between Reliance and Bharti, there's about 90,000km of fiber laid out in India. Reliance plans to take this to corporations in mid-2003, and to homes by end-2003 -- the "last mile" being Ethernet in this case:

  Ethernet Networks
Cost of connection (after laid-down fiber) Lower than Copper-Line, higher than GSM/CDMA
Cost of equipment (hub) Low
Local call cost (VoIP, voice chat) Packet switched network, distance is irrelevant*
Long distance call cost (assuming nationwide network) Packet switched network, distance is irrelevant
Data rate 100M/s
Cost of upgrading to higher rates (~G/s) Negligible
Mobility Limited (802.11b (11M/s) and 802.11a/g (50M/s))

Given their ability to mess up with clockwork precision, I can't even begin to imagine what the TRAI will make of all this. But if Reliance and Bharti are to really leverage their investment in fiber, then not offering this to paying customers is unthinkable for them... it's only a matter of time before they do.

India's telecom biz is in for some very interesting times.

*VoIP is currently not permitted for intra-India calls. But with proliferation of broadband, either VoIP has to be allowed or telcos will lose revenue to peer-to-peer voice chat software, which despite causing a lot of frustration to telcos will be impossible to ban.

 

 
The TRAI is supposed to release its revised tariff recommendations today. This FE article doesn't paint too optimistic a picture for those who were looking for Caller-Party-Pays: CPP will be the norm everywhere, they suggest, unless you are calling from a fixed-line phone, essentially a BSNL phone (Bharti does offer fixed-line services through Touchtel, so could Reliance). Today will be a good litmus test for the TRAI: do they genuinely have the interests of the common man, and the development of India's anemic telecom sector, in mind; or are they merely a "regulatory" facade for the maintenance of the old telecom raj that BSNL inherited? Stay tuned for their recommendations today.

 

January 24, 2003

 
Joshua Allen:
Without disable-output-escaping, there is no way to extract HTML embedded inside XML, which means that Netscape is utterly useless for transforming RSS and plenty of other useful files. I am so glad that they get props for their standard supports. Once again, I had to walk away from Mozilla unsatisfied. I think from now on I will refer to Mozilla as "The Northwest Airlines of Browsers".
The funny thing is, Netscape wasn't particularly religious about standards as long as it was the dominant browser. Standards-religion bit them only after Nav4, when IE4 had already had them sprawling. Standards are not bad per se (despite the fact that most users don't care), but an inability to spot and implement a useful feature (especially when your main competitor does it) and bring it into the standards process is a sure sign of ossification. That said, XML support has been a low priority for the Mozilla developers, as is sort of obvious by the pace at which Transformiix evolves. The three cool features Mozilla has added are of late mostly relate to improving the browsing experience: tabbed browsing, popup-blocking and a bayesian spam filter in mailnews; the last two are killer features IE would do well to imitate.

 

January 20, 2003

 
From-the-affordances-dept: Fly UI.

 

 
Reliance and Bharti have strike deal on interconnect rates. As Ravi Prasad points out, this is probably the first sane Calling-Party-Pays regime in India. Now if only BSNL would follow suit... thankfully, there will now be quite a bit of pressure on them to do so.

 

 
Dmitry Jemerov is working on a Syndirella, a News Aggregator for .NET. Promising.

 

January 16, 2003

 
It is not true that cellcos have no niches left for them to compete over. If they'd only quit whining and look closer, they'd see that as basic operators see ever-thinner margins in their long distance business, they'll have no choice but to raise local call rates (which was subsidized by long distance rates so far). GIven that most cellcos (except Bharti) have no long distance business, and see a bulk of their income come from local and intra-circle calls, I'd say this would be a good hammer for them to hit basic operators with.

 

 
It is difficult to find worse whiners in India today than the GSM cellcos. I'm writing this after laughing over this line in the Financial Express: Industry sources said the TRAI directive on interconnect came as a ‘shock’ to the cellular industry last Friday and forced players to take it up with the regulator as a first priority. These are people who went into business with eyes wide open: they knew that
  • India's basic-telephones-to-cell interconnect costing was ridiculous
  • deregulation in the fixed-line sector was imminent
  • the new players would be much more nimble and aggresive than the lumbering dinosaurs called BSNL and MTNL
Well, now they have a velociraptor called Reliance in their midst, and it's drawing blood without even coming starting to offer services. And they are surprised that the regulator is siding with the basic-service-providers? After all, the TRAI is merely interpreting the rulebook, and the rulebook says that cellcos have to offer interconnects to all basic providers. If the cellcos are discovering only now that the rulebook was so firmly stacked against them, then (if I was a cellco shareholder) I would raising cain about what the cellco legal eagles and due-diligence people were doing all this time.

Of course, the correct answer to that is they were playing a wink-and-nod game with their only 'competitors', BSNL and MTNL, comfortable in the knowledge that both was doing what they knew best -- fleecing customers while providing substandard service.

 

January 15, 2003

 
Worth re-reading: a mid-1998 piece by Paul Krugmann: The Ice Age Cometh.
...suppose that, for whatever reason, the market goes up month after month; your MBA-honed intellect may say "Gosh, those P/Es look pretty unreasonable", but your prehistoric programming is shrieking "Me want mammoth meat!" - and those instincts are hard to deny.

 

 
At least one Reliance employee has a weblog. Surprise, surprise, his site looks better than his employers'.

 

 
TBTF? is no more.

 

January 14, 2003

 
After about 2 weeks of bluster from Indian cellcos, the TRAI finally shows some backbone and asks them to stop selective interconnects or else. Of course, this will probably go to court, and in no small part due to the TRAI's mulish refusal to at least try to implement a calling-party-pays structure for cellular calls.

More interestingly, Sunil Mittal announced yesterday that Bharti received approval to carry data on their i2i submarine cable on Friday: We have got the necessary clearances on transmission of data only last Friday and the consumers of bandwidth can expect some announcement in this week. Last month, I had written about how 160G of India's total outgoing bandwidth of 900G is wasted on voice alone. Things will improve further if Dishnet can get its act together.

Of course, most of India's data flow is to the US, so I don't know what latencies will result in these Singapore-routed connections, but anything around 300ms will be good to have.

 

January 03, 2003

 
Rediif: Mobile Users not impressed with new rate cuts. Sunil Mittal of Bharti Telecom clarified that the customers would have to pay charges for long distance call from cell to fixed line. ... Ashim Ghosh of Hutch said that there was no question of offering free incoming calls. The GSM cellcos are still in denial. There are 42 million landlines in India (versus 9 million GSM cellphones). Creating a gated community of mobile GSM users will not help, especially as each CDMA user can interop with landlines seamlessly. What these people need to do is lobby to remove the interconnection tariff that they pay. And offer free incoming, no strings attached. (Britain's 7-prefixed cell numbers is a good model, one knows one has to pay more to call the number). But considering these guys negotiating skills (heck, they can't even decide termination charges so that they can offer cell-to-cell incoming free) I am not surprised they have made no headway with the TRAI so far.

On another note, I'm still waiting for BSNL and Bharti's long-distance price-drop announcement.

 

January 02, 2003

 
GSM Operators strike back, customers smiling: In a bid to compete with limited mobile services by basic service providers, cellular companies on Thursday announced a uniform mobile-to-mobile STD rate of Rs 2.99 per minute. Not good enough. Here's what Airtel will have to do to retain me: 1. most important: free incoming - from landlines as well. 2. STD rates should be be 2.99/minute for all phones - including landlines. 3. Cheaper SMSes. Rs 1 per SMS sent doesn't cut it anymore. And I don't care what the COAI is whining about interconnect rates: if Reliance can lobby, so can you - go get those interconnect rates scrapped. But for God's sake stop whining and try to deliver value to the customer for a change.

 


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