IT'S TIME you took your neglected stamp collection seriously, for mail may soon become electronic. The familiar sound of the postman's bicycle bell will be replaced by the beep of the computer and the crackle of telephone lines as electronic mail, or E-mail, transforms communications.
Already about 15 million people the world over, a majority of them in the US, exchange mail electronically on more than two million computers. They swap love notes, compare scientific findings, sign business deals and even send tax returns to the government on computers.
The marriage of communications technology and computers lies behind what could amount to a social revolution, and will probably do more than anything else to turn the world into a global village. Computer networking -- interlinking computers across the world through cables -- now allows reams of information to flow from one machine to another.
After making inroads into USA, E-mail is now set to make a big splash in India. In addition to being as quick, E-mail is cheaper than a fax or a phone call. Says S Ramakrishnan, a director at the department of electronics (DoE), "A minute-long conversation to the US costs about Rs 90, whereas by E-mail, you could send 30 pages of printed matter in the same time."
To be an E-mail user, you need three gadgets -- a telephone, a personal computer and a modem (modulator-demodulator), which is a device that converts (modulates) information transmitted as electrical pulses or light waves into a readable form and vice versa. With the help of this apparatus, you can hook on to an international network of computers.
Worldwide, there are some 700,000 computer networks that are being increasingly linked with each other. The US-based Internet, which links about 1.4 million computers in different countries, is by far the world's largest E-mail network. There are other worldwide networks owned by telecom companies, such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint.
Besides the technology, competition, too, is crucial to this telecom revolution. Telecom experts see at least two fast emerging markets: providing value-added networks that offer aural, visual and textual data on demand and managing networks for companies with international operations; and upgrading the ageing telecom services, especially in Asia and Latin America, in order to develop domestic business and attract foreign investors. In fact, it is estimated that in this decade, more cables will be laid in Asia and Latin America than in the developed world.
In India, there are already several national networks. Most, such as Coalnet of Coal India Ltd, link employees of the same firm in different parts of the country. Several newspapers such as The Times of India and The Pioneer have linked their various editions via E-mail, making the transmission and dissemination of news much faster.
But the two largest Indian computer networks are Nicnet, run by the National Informatics Centre (NIC), and Ernet, a $6 million project managed by an octet of organisations -- the five Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore, the National Centre for Software Technology (NCST) at Bombay and the Department of Electronics (DoE).
Nicnet, which relies on satellite communication between its users, is the world's largest state-owned computer network, says P K Misra, who looks after Nicnet at NIC. Nicnet links the Central and state governments with all the districts in the country through satellite. However, the number of computer terminals -- one per district -- limits the number of users. Nicnet has about 8,000 listed users, as compared to Ernet's 20,000 from about 210 institutes nationwide.
Funded by the United Nations Development Programme and the Indian government, Ernet is hooked via Internet to almost all the scientific institutions in the world. All outgoing mail converges at a master computer at DoE in Delhi whence it is despatched to NCST, where the international link is made through what is called a gateway. Other networks, including Nicnet, use the gateway provided by the Bombay-based public sector Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL) to send international E-mail.
VSNL has been running its E-mail service for the last three years. It is connected to a number of international networks run by mega-companies such as AT&T. At each gateway point, users have an electronic mailbox that only they can access.
A scientist hooked to Ernet can not only send an E-mail, but she or he can even onload files from any other computer linked to Internet. For example, a computer scientist in Delhi IIT can log into a supercomputer in some US university to do his calculations and then access the results on his PC. A similar facility is available for accessing databases stored in computer "libraries" in various universities and institutes the world over.
Persuaded by the potential of E-mail, private business houses are also setting up E-mail services. The Business India group's Axcess, which is hooked to Internet, has about 300 subscribers at present.
NIC, too, is thinking along commercial lines. It proposes to expand its ambit by networking India's major public sector and private companies. This national network would then be linked to international networks via a satellite-based super highway.
Before E-mail dispenses with the postman, several problems, however, have to be overcome. For example, the prevalence of more than one system of communication or protocol makes communication between different networks difficult.
In countries such as India, the state of the cable network is not very good. "Like our roads, our telephone lines, too, have become old and cannot handle the ever increasing volume of traffic, resulting in bottlenecks that delay the passage of data. Presently, our telephone cables cannot transmit data faster than 1,200 bits per second (bips) through ordinary telephone lines and 9,600 bips for leased lines," explains Misra. A bit (binary digit) is the smallest letter of digital information, just like an alphabet. He adds, "Because of the low carrying capacity of the lines, the message either doesn't reach in one piece or gets garbled on the way."
However, Ramakrishnan, who is also director of the Ernet project, says that for domestic purposes, the existing speeds are good enough. The problem arises while sending international mail especially since 95 per cent of E-mail is international, he explains.
Even leased lines, which are dedicated to E-mail use, are troublesome. Says Jain, "Their efficiency is not more than 60 per cent. There is too much 'noise' or voltage fluctuation that corrupts the data reaching the other end. If the lines are down, we are forced to use the regular lines, which is extremely expensive."
To make communication faster on Ernet, "DoE will soon lease a satellite connection. Compared to leased lines, which carry data at 9,600 bips, satellites communicate data at 64,000 bips," says Renu Buddhiraja, an E-mail expert at DOE.
For private E-mail operators, profits will be long in the coming because the number of clients is not large enough at present. Says Sandeep Kohli, an executive with Business India's Axcess, "With 300-odd users, we do not expect to break even before a year of operation. Our rates for international mail vary according to how fast the client wants the mail to reach. Presently, we charge between Rs 18 (under 12 hours) and Rs 90 (under four hours) per 2,000 characters." But most experts agree that value-added services such as transferring visual images, photographs and access to international databases could increase profitability.
As the importance of access to information grows, and with the entire world hooking on to networks, experts say it hardly makes sense not to expand E-mail use in the country.