Airtel India Internet Technology Telecom

Broadband in India is Far from a Reality

Being involved in Startup Saturday Delhi, I have come across a lot of entrepreneurs building Internet applications. Most of them being India centric. The problem, which has been discussed and reported numerous times is that broadband penetration is a miniscule 3% of the whole population. There are roughly 3 million broadband subscribers in India.

Airtel 8Mbps with 4GB Cap
Airtel 8Mbps with 4GB Cap

India being a highly price conscious country, I find it amazing that telcos like Airtel are busy hiking the price of metered “broadband” while degrading service levels. The latest move by Airtel has been to increase the price of their “unlimited” 512k connection to Rs. 1,599 (USD 34) per month. The real kicker is that the speed degraded to 256k after you’ve hit downloads totaling 100GB.

Airtel 512k with 100GB Cap
Airtel 512k with 100GB Cap

At the same time, they are introducing 16Mbps connections for Rs. 2,999 (USD 64) per month that have download caps of 20GB. A single Linux distro download is 4GB. A point upgrade to OS X is generally around 500MB. Buying and downloading a few shows from iTunes or watching a few videos on YouTube and I’ll blow right thru my 20GB limit in a week. If I download roughly 40GB of data in a given month, my Internet access will cost me upwards of Rs. 12,000 (USD 255) per month.

Airtel 16Mbps with 20GB cap
Airtel 16Mbps with 20GB cap

If indian telcos like Airtel were to offer unlimited 1Mbps connections at Rs. 999 (USD 21) and unlimited 2Mbps at Rs. 1,599 (USD 34), the willingness of Indians to spend on Internet access would be much more palatable. Other than those whose careers in some way, shape, or form are connected to the Internet, very few people are willing to spend more than Rs. 999 per month on Internet access. Those that spend Rs. 999 or less per month, get an experience that basically sucks. They are frustrated and completely turned off by the fact that it takes 20 minutes to load a 3 minute video on YouTube.

India will never be a country of mass Internet adoption while the government agencies like TRAI and DoT don’t adopt a definition of broadband that is more inline with shifts in Internet usage. Indian telcos continue to provide subpar speeds at exorbitant prices when compares to the rest of the world. India, touting itself, as the technology center of the 21st Century, must adopt an infrastructure and a coherent policy around broadband deployment and usage. Only with the government mandating the need for widespread Internet adoption, at feasible price points, will there be widespread broadband adoption by non-techies.

However, relying on the government to be so forward thinking is a pipe-dream. What the Indian telcos should do is adopt a model that was instrumental in driving mobile usage in India. Drop the price points so that even the average person (living on Rs. 100 per day), would find Internet usage compelling, useful, and not frustrating. If they were to adopt a mass usage policy and not price their broadband products based on margins, I believe that in 5 years, India could have at least 100 million broadband users (via DSL, cable modem, Mobile 3G, wiMax, etc.) Is it too much to ask the Indian telcos like Airtel, MTNL, BSNL, Tata Communications, Reliance, etc. to push the envelope of adoption? Unfortunately, I think it might be.

Airtel Apple Delhi India iPhone

Apple iPhone on Airtel India Minus GPRS

Well, I’ve been trying for almost a whole week to get Airtel‘s Unlimited GPRS service (or Mobile Office as it’s called on their site) setup. Unfortunately, all the SMS confirmation messages telling me that it is setup and will cost Rs. 499/month for unlimited usage were all bogus.

I’ve confirmed that even though my iPhone shows the “E” implying an EDGE/GPRS connection, the service isn’t really activated. I’ve used the new Airtel SIM card in my Apple iPhone (which is unsupported by Airtel) and also a Nokia E61 (which is supported). It doesn’t work on either phone. I then even tried to put the SIM into a USB EDGE/GPRS device and configure it on my Mac Mini but still no luck.

I believe Airtel’s setup process for GPRS is a manual one. That’s one of the reasons it will take 4 hours to setup the service. 4 Hours have turned into almost 144 hours and countless phone calls to both 121 (customer service) and 12118 (technical support). 12118 tells me that it’s not active and 121 sometimes tells me that it is active, other times they tell me they’ve put in a request to have it activated, and other times they’ve told me that it is active. The support on Airtel’s mobile desk is fairly horrendous as compared to their excellent service for their DSL and landline products.

In New Delhi, at least, you must send the following SMS to 121 from your Airtel phone:


I’ve heard that “AGPRS” also works but in my case, neither SMS messages nor telephone calls have actually gotten the service activated.

Once you receive a confirmation message, you can go into your settings and setup the APN as shown below:

Though, the confirmation messages haven’t helped me, it doesn’t have anything to do with the iPhone. It only has to do with Airtel’s inability to get the service fully activated. The process appears to be a two-part manual process and one service rep let it slip that only the first part has been done, hence, I’m getting the “E” on my iPhone but no actual service.

My only advice is to keep hounding them to get the service activated and, if possible, use an Airtel supported handset while asking them to activate the service. If you tell them you’re using an iPhone, their eyes will glaze over and you’ll get the ole heev-ho.

I’ll post updates as they become available.

Update: 29th April, 2008
Airtel was able to finally get it right. It took them 9 days and countless phone calls plus SMSes and a little bit of strong-arming to get them to put me on the phone with a floor supervisor but the supervisor finally got GPRS (Mobile Office) setup on my account. The access point name (APN) on my iPhone is set to All I had to do was turn the iPhone off and back on to get it to work once the service was activated. I just hope some bonehead over there doesn’t turn the service off again …

Update: 5th May, 2008
Airtel has done it again and “automatically” disconnected my Mobile Office GPRS connection. They couldn’t give me any explanation except “the status is wrong”. Even after pressing the supervisor for an explanation, I got nothing. They’re telling me they will resolve the problem in 24 hours, an unacceptable amount of time for “automatically” disabling my service without any notice. As happy as I’ve been with Airtel’s DSL service, I am immensely disappointed with their mobile service. The incompetence continues ….

Update 2: 5th May, 2008
It took Airtel a little over 6 hours but Mobile Office GPRS is working again….for now.