Email imbroglio

Recall the days in the late 1980s when e-mail technology had just made an appearance in India. Only the elite institutions had access, courtesy ERNET and NICNET. It was a seller's market; one had to beg for a connection, only to be refused. The public sector player CMC Ltd. (INDONET) and VSNL (GEMS 400) developed network services for which users had to pay a fancy price. Private operators like ICNET, DARTMAIL, entered the starved market with lot of fan-fare (including listing on the stock exchange). Tertiary players like INSDOC also joined the fray with SIRNET (a piggyback service on ERNET).

One could not squarely blame operators for restricted (restrictive?) diffusion of the technology. During that period, development of a separate network was essential to generate e-mail services. Apart from high investments, the operators had to face difficulties in importing the hardware-software systems and obtaining dedicated telecom lines. However, the regime of exclusive email networks lasted for a short while only.

Internet, with e-mail as an integral component, brought about a radical change in the scenario, though, until free services like Hotmail came in, e-mail was not within the easy reach of non-institutional users. A plethora of free email services were on offer by almost all search engines like Yahoo and Excite and entities like Mailcity and Rocketmail. Not to be left behind - Indian outfits like Rediffmail, 123India, Indiatimes Mail also extended free e-mail services. As a result, e-mail IDs are now as common as phone numbers or faxes on visiting cards. Apart from business users, students, homemakers, and parents whose kids are away from home have also become avid users. Even illiterate expatriates in India and Indians abroad have started depending upon e-mail as a cheaper and faster means of communication than the postal system.

Suddenly there is a quake in the paradise. The dotcom bubble at last has burst, primarily for want of a revenue stream. As a natural corollary, the free e-mail regime has shaken up. The first salvo came from the biggies in the US market like the usa.net (net@ddress) and in India from 123India.com. However, some of the big ones like the Hotmail and Yahoo, in the USA, and Rediffmail and Indiatimes Mail in India are still sitting on the fence, perhaps watching which way the wind blows.

Truly speaking, there is nothing like a free lunch. It requires significant investments to develop and run a service. Somebody pays, but it's not always clear who are they. The dotcom enterprises expected too much to come from advertisements. In reality this has not materialized. In fact, one wonders how far the consumer companies can really stretch their advertisement budget! TV channels (and the whole lot of them today), radio, newspapers, roadside bill boards, interior and exterior of buses and train compartments, rail and bus stations, cinema theatres and so on, are all maneuvering for the flow from the pot of gold to come in their direction.

The result is obvious -- poverty is being shared by all. The free-to-air TV channels have started charging heavily, and now, the e-mail services.

Recognizing that the new scenario has come to stay, at least for some time, let us see how the customers could be retained. It would be a difficult exercise of customer relationship management, given that customers largely accustomed to getting service free of cost are now to be transformed to accept a pay-regime.

The well-known usa.net (net@ddress) has announced a tariff of US $ 30 (Rs. 1400) per annum before July 31, 2001; thereafter, one has to pay $50 (Rs 2350/-). In India, 123India has announced the tariff of Rs.999/- per annum, with 50% discount for students and senior citizens; add-ons (four subscriptions maximum) are offered at a 50% discount. The payment of $ 2.5 to $4 per month may not deter a serious user in the developed countries, however, a subscription of Rs.120 - 200 per month would definitely put the service beyond the reach of most Indians. In the unforeseen scenario of the market stabilizing with this order of subscription rate, it is likely that there would be a shift from individual ID to family/household ID (like cable TV connection). I shudder to imagine the ruckus that would be created by teenagers at home.

Of course there are other alternatives. When one takes an Internet connection, e-mail ID comes as a part of the package. It is a matter of primary school arithmetic to locate a solution that suits a pocket.

For example, VSNL gives a 5 MB e-mail space with each account. Consider the Plan 100, which allows 100 hrs of Internet time at a cost of Rs.750/-. The account is valid for 3 years i.e., Rs.250 per year. The quantum of 33 hrs per year may appear short, but one may add the free time on Sundays and between 2300 to 0800 hrs on weekdays. By way of another example, Mantra Lifetime offers 2 e-mail IDs each with 2 MB space and 75-150 day/night access hours for Rs.499, and 3 e-mail IDs and 150-300 day/night access hours for Rs.799 (with lifetime validity). With an innovative work method of offline viewing/preparation of mails, one should be able to manage with limited access comfortably. On the other hand, institutions can afford higher slabs. For example, the Plan C of Mantra Unplugged for unlimited usage for 12 months, offers 5 e-mail IDs at a cost of Rs.2499. Today to record the existence, all institutions are expected to have their corporate Web sites. Web mail could be an important component of all such sites.

Besides, ISPs like Caltiger offer free Internet connection. How long this charity lunch would continue is a matter of conjecture. As long they exist, there would not be much of a problem for the casual users. Of course, getting connected to the server would be a test of patience and perseverance.

Introduction of a pricing model is perhaps an inescapable eventuality. Both the service provider and user communities were on a honeymoon to a dream world. Now that the trip is over, the life has to be set on a realistic course. Already, the access to some of the free services is clogged mainly because of proliferation of users. The spam mails are difficult to contend with. New investment is not likely to come by to alleviate the problems.

True that there would be an exodus once a service is priced. Both the free and pay services would however, coexist catering to different sets of clientele. The serious users may be prepared to pay if fast access is ensured and privacy is respected. Automatic virus scans, absence of distracting advertisements, blocking of spam mails and value additions like financial information services would be added attractions.

Free services have helped develop a user base that is global. But unreasonable actions by the service providers for whatever compulsions may suppress this demand force. Conversely, the users ought to appreciate the predicament of the service providers.

Let the market behave in a more realistic manner.

— A. Lahiri

Information Today & Tomorrow, Vol. 20, No. 3, September 2001, p.1-p.2