I remember very vividly the day when I first surfed the net. It was the last quarter of 1998, I was in Kolkata, West Bengal. A few cyber cafes had mushroomed in few neighbourhoods. Getting a first hand experience of the internet, to understand what was “surfing the internet” was on my bucket list for sometime. However, there was no pressing need to really “surf” the net. Also the budget was tight – i was fresh out of college and did not have any source of income yet . Also internet access was pretty expensive and almost prohibitive at Rs. 2 per minute, that is a whopping Rs. 120 per hour. Rs. 120 was a big amount back then and people without any income were not expected to squander it away just like that for “experience”.
Today internet is ubiquitous and inevitable. It is nearly impossible to imagine life without internet access . However, about 25 years ago, internet access was still in the nascent stages in India. People were still trying to grapple with the idea of internet and the possibilities it offered.
I smile when I remember those days – there were so many myths and stories about internet at that time. People were in awe of what could be done with the help of internet. Sending emails from one end of the world to another, almost instantaneously was considered pure magic. Everyone talked of Hotmail and Sabeer Bhatia.
Politicians, leaders, media and tech evangelists were unequivocal in narrating bold visions of 21st Century and what it had in store for the masses. Everyone talked about the 21st century as the Holy Grail. The mobile and the internet services were launched in 1995 in India. However, both mobile and access to the internet remained out of reach for majority of people in India for a good decade after their initial launch mainly on account of two reasons (a) infrastructure (b) costs outweighed the benefits.
In those days, sending letters by mail (now referred to as snail mail) was the preferred and most affordable mode of communication. Business establishment would often send business communication via couriers (these were faster than snail mail but still took a few days to deliver) and for urgent matters there were overnight couriers to select cities.
There was another form of communication which was fast but you could only send a short message (like a tweet) – it was the Telegram. A telegram could only be sent from one post office to another. It was transmitted by the use of morse code. It was expensive and was supposed to be used only in case of emergencies. More often than not the arrival of Telegram to anyone’s home would be assumed to be containing some bad news about family members from other cities.
Back then, mobile phones had not yet arrived on the scene and not all had access to a land line phone. Also most telephone exchanges used to be manual with operators connecting the phone line on request in real time. For those who had a landline, or had access to one in the neighbourhood could place or receive long distance calls called Trunk Calls. These calls would be of fixed duration (3 minutes to be precise) and had to be pre-booked with a telephone operator at the exchange. And the funny part was that the operator would be listening to your entire conversation all throughout the call and would alert you when few seconds were left for the call duration to be over.
Between the landline and the mobile, Pager was another popular device. However, it was short lived once the text messages were made affordable/free on mobile phones. The pager was a small match box sized device which people clipped on to their belt. It used to beep when a new message arrived. In my case, my pager was linked to critical client systems in production. A beep on the pager meant trouble. I had to login immediately to check system health no matter what time of the day or night it was.
As the communication revolution continued, PCOs became very very popular. Anyone who could not or did not want to own a landline, could go to a PCO to make phone calls. Though the PCOs were common sight , the call rates were still very high and you would be billed by the second. In those days if we were staying in a different city we would call our parents only once in a week. In those days hardly anything was “instant” and there was no pressure to share minute by minute updates of one’s life with others.
Coming back to my story of my first “encounter” with internet. Let me tell you that this was the pre-dot com bubble and pre-Y2K fever days. Cyber cafes were slowly getting popular. And they started a variety of paid services. Here is a glimpse of the services they offered –
- Email ID creation – Rs. 300 (in reality creating a Hotmail ID was free but since common people did not know, these shop keepers would make most of the opportunity)
- If you did not know how to access email or did not want to create a mail ID – you could receive email on the cafe’s email address. If you enrolled for this service, the cafe owner would call you on your landline to inform you if any email was received in your name.
- If you wanted they would print the email and delivery it to you at your doorstep for a fee.
- They would help you send an email to anyone – again for a fee.
- And if you knew how to use a computer and navigate the internet, you could pay Rs. 2 per minute and surf the internet yourself.
Anyways, one fine day I made up my mind and went to a nearby cyber café. Asked him if he could show me what actually “net surfing” was. I told him to sit at the keyboard while I would sit right beside him and watch. He showed me some of the popular sites like Yahoo (the world had not heard about Google yet) Then the cyber cafe guy gave me a demo on sending and receiving emails. I might have spent hardly about 10-15 mins in the cyber cafe before I ran out of options of what to do next. So i concluded my session early, paid the Cyber cafe guy and walked back to my room thinking about the new questions that had now started popping up in my head.
Surprisingly these memories are still crisp in my head. And when i look back I am amazed to see how the world has changed over these years. For those who are born in the 21st century, it might be difficult to imagine how life was without 24×7 internet access or how people would meet at busy public places without having mobile phones or how people would wait days and weeks to receive the reply of their letter.
I am sure you might also have memories and experiences to share from that era. Please do share in the comments below.