Airtel Net PC

Techtree has announced that Airtel will soon be launching a cloud computer called the Airtel Net PC with full access for Rs. 7,999. So is this a good idea, and does it make financial sense? Here's my take on it.

Rs. 7,999 gives you a terminal with a 15" LCD screen, keyboard and mouse which sounds like a good deal. There's just one thing ... in addition to the purchase cost you have to pay anywhere between Rs. 699 to Rs. 1,199 per month to Airtel for broadband and storage charges. These are not unlimited connections, they are capped at between 3GB and 10GB per month. Also, their 'broadband' connection is capped at 256 kbps.

First let's look at the connection speed. 256kbps sounds reasonable, and it is for a user who uses the internet primarily for checking mail and a little browsing. It is definitely not reasonable for a user who is tied to the net for everything, from his applications to all of his documents. Remember, this is a 'thin' cloud computer with little or no local storage (the specifications on the hardware are very vague). Everything that a user does on the computer is going to go over that narrow bandwidth. I would consider 512kbps to be the absolute minimum for a scenario like this.

This brings me to the second issue with the Airtel plans (and this is something that I find issue with every other ISP in India) ... the transfer cap. 3GB per month of data transfer for a cloud computer is ridiculous! Let's take an example to estimate the data usage of an average user. Assume that this computer is going to be used by a family of four.. Four people reading their email and downloading the attachments will use up about 6 - 8MB per day (this is a very pessimistic figure. Just logging in to Gmail will take about 1.2MB for four users). Half and hour's regular browsing by four people gives a figure of approximately 56MB (I'm assuming that browsing will require about 64kbps of bandwidth, definitely less than what will be required for most flash and graphics-heavy websites). Then, if regular computer tasks like writing documents, schoolwork etc take up about 1 hour each day. Since this is a thin client on a cloud computer all this will have to be done online. I estimate a usage of around 56MB for this (60 min x 128kbps bandwidth). Also, lets assume that between the four of them, the family watches about 16 YouTube videos per day, which gives us a value of 234MB (16 videos x 10 min/video x 200 kbps). I'm not even going to assume that the family will be doing any downloading of music or movies which most ISPs claim causes the usage to balloon up. So let's add up the net usage of this average family: 6MB (email) + 56MB (web browsing) + 56MB (regular work that would normally be done off-line) + 234MB = 352MB per day! Which means that if this family uses the 'Home' pack which Airtel's marketing suggests would be ideal for them, they would use up their 3GB in less than 9 days. After that, the user would have to pay for usage at the rate of Rs. 25 per MB! (I'm using the tariff from the Airtel Super Value 499 Plan for Delhi here).

So far I've only considered the financial aspect of the Airtel Net PC. There are some other issues I have with thin computing, especially for home use. With a thin computer, you are limited to the applications provided by the provider (in this case it is Airtel). You do not get administrator rights to install any other applications you might want. You can also forget the idea of playing any kind of games except web-based flash games. Another thing to keep in mind is that this computer is permanently tied to the service provider. If Airtel decides to shut down its service, you will be left with a Rs.8,0000 paperweight. Also, since this computer uses cloud computing, all your data will be stored on Airtel's servers. What do you do if one day you decide to stop the service? Especially, consider the situation that I expect to become very common - the user is hit with a huge bill due to the large amount of data transfers and disputes the charges with Airtel. Until he pays up (whether he feels the bill is justified or not), he does not have any access to his own data!

So what are the alternatives available? Let's see what five minutes of Googling gives us.
A local assembler will usually charge less and will also give much better personalized service. Add Rs. 2,000 to 3,000 if you want a Windows OS installed, but give Linux a chance, it's free and legal, and you can always change your mind later if you don't like it.

One of the Airtel's Net PC's selling points is that it includes access to Microsoft Office in the package. The fact is that there are plenty of other options out there that are just as good and cheaper (and usually free). Let's take a look at some common software that have equally good free alternatives.
There are a lot of ISPs in India which provide good unlimited plans for broadband. Here's a quick sampling of some 256kbps plans without any data transfer limits and my unbiased review (I've used virtually every ISP in Pune)
  • Airtel - Rs. 649 per month (Good speed i.e. if they promise you 256 kbps you will get at least that much, very good service, not available in all areas. I personally use an Airtel 512kbps unlimited connection)
  • BSNL - Rs. 750 per month (Average speed, very poor service, technical support is limited to non-existent, frequent disconnects, very good coverage. This is a good option if you already have a BSNL landline)
  • MTNL - Rs. 999 per month (Good speed, average service, average technical support (phone support is poor, but their home technicians are good), very good coverage in metros)
  • Tata Indicom - Rs. 999 per month (Average speed, good service, average coverage), Photon Pro plan @ Rs. 799 per month (no reviews about this)
  • You Telecom - no 256 kbps plan (Their speed and service is crap anyway)
  • Hathway - Rs. 2000 for 3 months, effectively Rs. 667 per month (no reviews)

So to sum up, using an Airtel Net PC for a year will cost about Rs. 22,387 (I'm assuming the user with a Business plan which allows much more data transfer) while a more powerful assembled computer with a Rs. 650 net connection will cost Rs. 22,800. The difference is that from the second year, the assembled solution will cost less than half the Airtel Net PC, while still providing much more capability.

I'd also like to clarify that I don't have anything for or against Airtel. I personally use Airtel as my ISP and feel that they is one of the best ISPs in India today. I also don't believe that thin computers have a niche role to fulfil, especially for businesses. My only gripe is that Airtel has positioned and priced the Net PC in such a way that does not make sense, either to them or to the consumer.

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