Reliance Netway to begin Mumbai test run in two months

MUMBAI: The first thing that hits you when you enter Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City (DAKC), the high security nerve centre of Reliance Infocomm located in Navi Mumbai, is the sheer scale of vision that defines the company's broadband initiative.

The numbers speak for themselves. A whopping Rs 160 billion have been spent thus far on the broadband initiative, and Reliance is ready to pump in more if required "from internal accruals." There will be no further external equity cash infusions, you are informed.

The high capacity optic fibre backbone that has been laid out across the country has already crossed 60,000 km, and will go up to 90,000 km by year-end. Already 1,100 cities and towns have been hooked up and that number is expected to reach 5,000 by the end of this fiscal.

And speaking of high security, this fibre network is monitored 24/7 from DAKC, and any cut or disruption can be rectified within a maximum of four hours, is Reliance's promise. All the cities and towns are hooked via a concentric ring system (a metro like Mumbai has a three-ring network system in place). What this means is if there is a network break anywhere on this info highway, once it has been located, it can be isolated from the system, and data flow can be rerouted through another network ring).

Amit Khanna, Reliance Infocomm spokesperson, puts it succinctly when he says, "Technologically, we are running this race one year ahead of the rest of the World."

It is on this information superhighway that Reliance Infocomm's six business streams will run --- wireless, wireline, Netway, Enterprise broadband, business process outsourcing, WebWorld and the Carrier business.

As far as the broadcast sector is concerned however, it is Reliance's broadband plans, ethernet broadband 'Netway' for the home user in particular, that is the focus of attention.

Netway is still nearly a year away from commercial launch, clarifies Khanna, though a "test run" of the service that "has no parallel anywhere in the world except in Italy on a very small scale" is already on at the Reliance centre in Jamnagar, Gujarat. 3,000 households of Reliance employees at the Jamnagar oil refinery have been wired up for this purpose, says Khanna.

In another two months, the testing process will move up a gear when 5,000 homes of Reliance Infocomm employees (there are 15,000 of them working in DAKC alone) get wired up.

Reliance's set-top-box

Suffice to say that what Reliance is committing to give its home user customers is 100 mbps bandwidth routed through a prototype set top box that will triple up as a TV remote, a phone, a keyboard and even a karaoke microphone.

With this kind of bandwidth capacity, the question is of course what is the sort of content that will be made available for home users. According to the literature provided, aside from the obvious high speed Internet which also offers Voice over IP telephony, there will also be movies on demand, music on demand and digital TV. A vast library of movies with multiple language subtitles as well as an extensive music listing is being compiled at the moment. Netway is also promising interactive TV with over 160 channels.

According to Khanna, aggressive pricing will be one of the tools to kickstart the entry of Netway into homes, the whole television watching universe of 90 million odd homes being the target. Possible introductory sweeteners could include free Internet and / or free telephony (with certain unspecified conditions of course).

And when will the actual rollout take place? The first quarter of fiscal 2005 is a realistic proposition, feels Khanna. This means that Netway has just under a year to get its channel offering as well film and music library in place.

No mean task if one looks at the difficulty the Essel Group's DTH service Dish TV has been having in trying to get the Star and Sony bouquet channels on board. Khanna, however, expressed confidence that all the channels commonly available on cable networks would also be seen on Netway.

And what of the two links in the distribution change that currently interface between the broadcaster and the viewer - the MSO and the last mile operator?

Khanna would prefer to let the market and the consumer ultimately decide that particular question.

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