Rough and ready internet

The idea that India is leading the flat world electronically into the 21st century is a bit of an exaggeration. Although Indians are well educated in the sciences and large parts of the growing economy depend on the internet, these cluster in large cities and isolated groups. Much of the country lies 10 to 50 years behind in infrastructure and sophistication.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the challenges of getting connected while traveling. In the West, we are used to connecting our laptop to a wifi service in any hotel down to the cheapest Motel 6. And during the day, a visit to Starbucks or a quick scan will usually yield an open hotspot, often free.

Not in India. Most hotels haven’t even got the idea that travelers might want to connect from their rooms in the middle of the night. I’m sure it would be different if we were staying at the Taj, but we’re not being cheap, either. We are staying at midrange hotels that cater to foreign and domestic tourists and business travelers, often a business hotel near a train station. But there is nothing in the room and not even a business center or lobby hotspot. Hotel staff generally smile and say no problem – there’s an internet café down the street.

Internet cafes are everywhere, but they are really nasty places. They are rarely air-conditioned, so the heat of the computers adds to the native swelter. Mosquitoes abound. The machines are often five years old and half are broken. Viruses are rampant. Trying to use these machines for anything more than webmail is an exercise in frustration.

Many internet cafes in India refuse to let people connect their own laptop through either a cable or wifi. I’m not sure if it’s fear of viruses, terrorism, bandwidth abuse or just extra work, but they simply refuse. So each time we come to a new town, we have to interview café owners to find the one that will let us connect.

I use my iPhone a lot, though it too has challenges. I have to adjust settings and watch usage to make sure I don’t run over the 100 MB that I’ve paid for. And half of the time it insists on connecting to a carrier that doesn’t include data service or won’t connect it to an international phone.

Despite all this, we have managed to stay connected to both email and the real world. We pay all our bills through the internet. Efax sends me all my junk faxes by email. We get our postal mail thanks to our housesitters and a wonderful service called Earth Class Mail that acts like an electronic PO Box, opening our postal mail and scanning, forwarding or shredding it on our direction.

It all works, but we’re still a long way from a truly flat world.

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