For the people in Chennai, Cyclone Vardah is yet another natural disaster that has made life a challenge. People tell us that the situation in the city is not as bad as last year's flooding in Chennai, but that things are definitely bad. However, this time around, what's happening in Chennai is having a more immediate impact on the rest of the country as well, as Internet services are facing problems thanks to the cyclone. This means that you could be sitting in Mumbai trying to pay online with your card, only to realise that the transaction is not going through, or your card might not be accepted when you try and swipe it at a restaurant in Delhi.
Of course, the situation is even worse in Chennai, where many telecom and Internet providers have had their services completely disrupted, and there have been long power cuts too. However, at a time when many of us are still queueing up for long durations to get a single Rs. 2000 note from an ATM, any disruption in online transactions is also a big issue.
"Customers may experience connectivity issues for the next 24 hours due to network uplink issues caused by Cyclone Vardah. We regret the inconvenience caused and hope full services will be restored shortly," a representative of TTN broadband, an ISP active in the South told Gadgets 360. ACT Internet, a very popular network provider present in many Southern cities also gave almost exactly the same response, though it added that it was "working actively" to restore normalcy. Internet access in India happens through two main gateways - one in Chennai, and the other in Mumbai, so issues in Chennai have a far reaching impact on all of India.
Another service provider, Hathway, informed customers via SMS that they may face interruptions in Internet connectivity as Google is experiencing network issues in India due to the cyclone in Chennai, resulting in restricted service in operation. It added, that the cyclone has also affected repair work, and that Hathway is continuing to work with Google to restore normalcy. Airtel also sent a similar message to customers.
The problems were being caused because a lot of the fibre media backbone is Chennai has been affected by the cyclone, resulting in some issues with connectivity. "We are experiencing challenges in fibre media backbone in Chennai due to this phenomenon and as a result Internet traffic moving via Trans Pacific Route may get impacted," Vodafone said in a statement. "This may result in intermittent degradation of services on our Internet links."
The result of this is of course not just some links not working from time to time, but also a lot of people facing difficulties with online payments. The spike in numbers for online payments was inevitable following the demonetisation announcement - people have no choice if they want to do anything at all - but this means that the failure rate of transactions has also inevitably gone up. On Monday, MobiKwik CEO Bipin Preet Singh pointed out that multiparty authentication systems such as Visa and MasterCard are more challenging to scale with additional points of failure, and gave the example of how at retail, cards from all major banks apart from Amex were not being accepted at PoS machines. On Twitter, Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma also said that with traffic running at 19.5 times for the company's wallet system, hardware and system scaling was required across the board.
Now though, with the Internet issues being faced because of Cyclone Vardah, the problem has become even worse, with customers telling Gadgets 360 that all online payments are failing or being badly delayed. "I had gone out and needed to top up my wallet to call a taxi," explained Anita Ghosh, a Delhi resident who had gone to the city's posh Khan Market to meet friends in the evening. Ghosh had paid for her drinks with the cash she had at the time, which meant that she did not have enough money to take a taxi without a digital payment. However, topping up the mobile wallet balance was not working, and so she tried to sign up for an Ola account in front of us. Topping up Ola Money did not work either - in both cases, after accepting the card details, the page would simply say "loading" and go no further. Eventually Ghosh gave up and called her husband, asking him to pick her up while she waited in a coffee shop in the market.
Others had bigger problems than a delayed ride home. One person who spoke to Gadgets 360 on Tuesday is a cigarette vendor, who has tied up with the store on the other side of the road to accept card payments. "After demonetisation, everyone started coming to my shop just to get change," he explained. "It became a very big problem so I organised to get this machine, because otherwise I have to send my boy to stand in ten different queues at banks to get change to give to people. I don't get change magically either." Now, if a customer is willing to pay by card, he sends his son to the store along with the customer, and the shop and he have an arrangement about the money.
On Tuesday night, he says that the card failure has been at least double of what he's seen in the last couple of days. As a result, he's back to using cash, and he's got a collection of Rs. 2000 notes, with almost no change himself. "The [shopkeeper] told me this evening that he's having trouble and that my customers start fighting if the card machine does not work. That for such small payments, it's not worth the trouble," he explained. "and so I'm back to cash, but everyone who comes has a Rs. 2000 note. I've had to turn more than half the people away."
This correspondent also experienced similar issues when trying to make payments online via his mobile phone. Interestingly enough, the same transactions on the same platforms worked at almost the same time when done through the desktop website, which likely uses a different payments facilitator. However, it's clear that for all the advantages that Digital India brings, going cashless will certainly pose challenges until the underlying infrastructure gets a big upgrade.