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ISPs – The Fine Lines

VSNL first introduced internet services in India in 1995. One should think that when the internet is entering its fifteenth year in Indian history (starting August 2009), our access to the network of networks would be a piece of cake. Then how come we end up with mud on our faces? Perhaps the reason is we don’t know enough about the chaps and chips that provide us this access. Perhaps we need to know our internet service providers a little better.

Internet service providers

Any organization that provides you access to the internet could be termed an internet service provider (ISP) – sometimes also called an internet access provider (IAP). Your home PC could be linked to the internet using a phone line modem, digital subscriber line (DSL) or a cable modem, which serves as an interface between your machine and the machine of your ISP – a ‘server’. There are more than 150 ISPs in India with some popular ones being BSNL, Airtel, Reliance and Tata.

Types of connections

An ISP would typically present you with a myriad of options and you’ll have to choose how you want to connect to the internet. These are basically either dialup connections or broadband ones.


A dial-up account (or analogue connection) simply means using your telephone line to access the internet. This is slow and keeps your phone line occupied, implying that you can’t talk on the phone and browse simultaneously. Downloading audio/video streams could be troublesome while using dial-ups. Besides, charges are levied over and above the regular charges that you would have to pay for a telephone call of the same duration. So if you’ve browsed for an hour, they would, likely, charge you for the cost of the telephone call (that’s lasted for an hour) ~plus~ the cost of internet usage.

Sometimes, ISPs advertise “high-speed dialup connections”. These may offer to provide speeds as high as 256 kbps (the bottom-line for broadband service speeds in India) – but what you get in reality is far from the typically seamless broadband experience. What ISPs actually do here is use a “handshake” – a shortened logon process and a different data-compression technique to speed up the process. Besides, they use an ‘Acceleration Server’ – a small-business Microsoft server that lets the ISP connect to the web through broadband. However, in the end, it’s the telephone line that will receive the data and there’s only so much data it can sustain at a particular moment — irrespective of what, and how much, is fed from the other end. Typically, dialups promise a maximum speed of 56 kbps, which is pretty much equivalent to snail mail by present day standards. A dialup connection is, therefore, the last resort of a frantic webophile. All the rest use broadband.


According to the definition by the Department of Telecommunication Broadband Policy published in 2004, ‘broadband’ refers to an ‘always-on’ data connection that is able to support interactive services including internet access and has the capability of the minimum download speed of 256 kilobits per second (256 kbps) to an individual subscriber from the point of presence (POP). The major access technologies for broadband are:
  1. DSL: Digital subscriber line is a technology that provides access using a dedicated digital circuit from your residence (or office) to the ISP’s central office. It allows high-speed data exchange over existing telephone lines, usually using a modem at each end. DSL connection speeds range from 128 Kbps to 8 Mbps. The DSL bouquet of technologies includes ADSL, SDSL and VDSL.
  2. ADSL: The asymmetric digital subscriber line technology is quite commonly used in India and is just another kind of DSL. The only difference here is that it provides more bandwidth downstream than upstream, so uploaders may sometimes feel that they’ve got a raw deal.
  3. SDSL: The Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line is another DSL connection, with a minor difference: the technology allows the same data rates for upstream as well as downstream traffic. The same telephone wires, however, cannot be simultaneously used for voice connections.
  4. VDSL: The ‘V’ stands for ‘Very High’ and VDSL technology, therefore assures you of super-fast data rates. However, it is usually meant for relatively short distances – the data rate being in direct proportion to the distance between the subscriber and the server.

Cable TV has been around a lot longer than the internet, with coaxial wires linking millions of Indians with cable operators. Cable ISPs provide internet access through existing lines.
Satellite internet service

Geo-stationary satellites allow users to access the web using the IoS (Internet over Satellite) technology.

Wireless Internet Access

‘Wireless’ is a magic word for techies – and technologies like Wi-Fi, WAP (Wireless Access Protocol), CDMA and GSM, offer access to the internet by making wires disappear, replacing the wires with radio waves.


A relatively new entrant into the world of internet services in India, Internet Protocol Television is a triple-play bundled service which offers broadband internet connections, digital television, VoIP and Video on Demand services — all over a single connection.


WiMAX stands for worldwide interoperability for microwave access and is a wireless technology that allows broadband access, usually for WiFi hot spots and providing ‘last-mile-connectivity’. WiMAX promises cheaper, faster wireless access, but having been introduced in India only in 2009, has yet to make its presence properly felt.

How to choose an ISP

Which of these technologies you choose depends on several factors. If you travel a lot, need to access the web on the go or can’t stop tweeting your friends, you’ll have to depend on the GSM or CDMA internet access services provided by your cellular service provider. Or, if you’re living in a city, you could use your laptop at any of the Wi-Fi hubs that are fast increasing in number. Mobile telephony companies (such as Reliance, Tata and Idea) offer USB modems that can be used with your laptop (and your PC too), which doesn’t leave you dependent on a Wi-Fi zone. However, you need to be within their network coverage. If you have a static PC to work with, DSL would be one of the better options to choose.

  1. Speed: A high-speed connection is essential to almost anyone who bothers to log on to the net today. Although the basic minimum is 256 kbps for broadband, it’s not always what the ISP says it is. The speed of connection that you actually experience will often be a far cry from that promised by the ISP. The number quoted to you is the maximum possible – but not always what you get in reality.
  2. Upload/download limits: Typically, an ISP offers you cheaper deals for limited usage. So the 1 GB scheme with speed 256 kbps would be the cheapest while the ‘Unlimited’ ones with speeds of 2 Mbps or 16 Mbps would be most expensive. If you just want to check your email once or twice a day, check up the odd web page or download a few documents in Word or PDF, the 1-GB or 2-GB limit would do just fine. Most ISPs have some form of an unlimited plan on offer. Sometimes, this is bundled up with the regular low-tariff plans as “free unlimited night surfing”. However, there’s a catch. Different ISPs have different concepts of “night”. Some give you the happy hours from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., others from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. while some from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. only. So either you’ll need to get up really early in the morning or stay awake late if you want to take advantage of these. This, however, is great for those of you who just can’t stop downloading, but are too busy working through the day to log on and find your favorite videos. 1 GB bandwidth, however, gets exhausted pretty quickly even if you’re not downloading heavy files in the daytime. Flash files, online radio, etc., also use up a lot of bandwidth, so perhaps you’d do better opting for 2 GB or 4 GB plans with ‘night-unlimited’ combos. “Unlimited” isn’t really unlimited either. Taking inspiration from the international ISPs, some Indian companies (viz. Airtel and Tata Indicom) recently announced a limit on their ‘unlimited’ plans. The unlimited high-speed access to the web is now restricted to 20 GB or 50 GB, or more, depending on the company and the scheme. If you exceed this limit, the ISP may do any of two things: (a) It may halve the speed of data transfer to your PC, or (b) It may even terminate your account. They call this the “Fair Use Policy” – an internationally accepted term which refers to a metering system or a restriction on individual use of bandwidth so that a single user does not hog all of it, leaving little or nothing for others. If you’re looking, you’ll find the details in really fine print.
  3. Reliability: It would be of great help to you if you could figure out the latency trends of a particular ISP. ‘Latency’ refers to delay in data transmission. The amount of time a packet of data takes to reach from one point in a network to another could be greatly affected by faulty hardware, congestion in the network or crashing servers.
  4. Service/Maintenance: Got a glitch with your modem? Can’t login because of a virus? Being overcharged? Don’t expect your favorite ISP personnel to barge into your home with instant solutions. It may take them anything from a few hours to a few days. Most disconcerting is the advice you receive from the call-centre executive, who puts you through mundane motions and IP checks while the problem very clearly lies elsewhere. Again, find out from your kith and kin how customer support and tech support of a particular ISP is before you go and purchase your first connection. Better still, find out the customer helpline and make a call yourself to see what kind of reply you receive – or whether you receive a reply at all.
  5. The fine print: In the age of the internet, it’s amazing that the ISPs still expect us to read extremely small fonts at the end of the forms we’re supposed to fill. Typically, however, we don’t read the ‘Terms and Conditions’ section even if the print is big enough for our impatient eyes. We forget that the reason that the terms are in fine print is precisely because if we read them, we’d probably never apply for a connection at all. Here are a few points you should keep in mind about the fine print:
  • An asterisk (*) usually refers to a crimp in the scheme. Check out what it says.
  • Never trust the word “free”. Nothing comes free, especially bandwidth. A leading ISP offered two months of free dialup internet services to existing phone users in 2008. Users who failed to read the fine print didn’t realize that while internet access was free, usage was charged according to the pulse rate of a regular phone call. Expectedly, several users were shocked to receive unbelievable bills, only to be told that the error was theirs.
  • Not all rates printed by ISPs in their offer documents are inclusive of service tax.
  • The ISP retains the full right to revise tariffs of all existing schemes without notice.
  • Every ISP has the right to terminate any customer’s connection without any notice if it finds the customer defaulting on a payment, misusing the services or sending unsolicited messages.
  • The ISP does not provide any warranty that they will provide “an uninterrupted and error free service”.
  • The ISP takes no responsibility of the sites you browse and whatever you access is at your own risk. You can’t, for example, file a case against your ISP for not installing an effective firewall or for allowing malicious software to enter your PC.
  • “Unlimited” always means “Limited”. The trick words here are “up to” (or, as in some cases, the misspelling “upto”). Try and find out what the limit on the ‘unlimited’ is before signing up.
  • ISPs can block the viewing of certain web sites or blogs, read your email or terminate your service at any given time without notice. An example of this is the selective blocking of certain internet telephony sites by some Indian ISPs before net telephony was legalized in April 2002.While we can’t enforce a change in the policy of the ISP, the least we can do is be aware – for with awareness comes empowerment. Let us not forget that while advertisements give us the right to choose, we retain the prerogative to choose wisely. So the next time you see an ad, don’t go rushing into the ISP’s office. Rather, sign on the dotted line and go home wondering whether you made the right choice. Walk in being aware of all the possible pitfalls and loopholes, ask the right questions, and don’t subscribe until you have all the necessary answers. Better still, take this article with you.