A conduit for nation building
It was 15 August 1983, India's Independence Day. The air was crisp that morning. A leading English news magazine ran its cover, "The Indian telephone system could easily rank as the worst in the world, dogged by myriad problems, obsolete equipment and corruption. With the increasing gap between the supply and demand for new connections . the system seems to be heading for a breakdown."
The story went on ranting about one Ram Piari Devi in Delhi waiting for a landline since 1965. It could have been my father's story as well.
Those were the days of the iconic black telephone lying mute most of the months. Lakhs of people would queue up at the pale-walled government-run Department of Telecommunications (DoT) offices to fill forms and wait for decadesfor a connection. It would cost several months' salary to get a landline. India's tele-density then was a scant 1%. A telephone at home would symbolize affluence-neighbour's envy, but owner's pride!
Fast forward to the present day! According to a telecom brand's whitepaper, 'India 5G Vision 2022,' India has emerged as the No. 1 country in mobile data consumption and No. 2 in terms of mobile subscriber base. Almost every Indian today is on a phone the size of a wallet, talking or surfing. It takes less than 60 seconds to get a connection, with tariffs that are cheapest in the world! Handsets come free if subscribed to certain networks, depending on the plan.
In a little over a quarter of a century, the country's tele-density is hurtling towards 100%. The ubiquitous phone has transcended to an object of necessity. Today folks can't sleep without their favorite device being right next to their pillow, as if this magic machine will churn out happy dreams.
We have a consensus on one fact. Post-1991, the two industries that put India on the 21st-century trajectory are telecom and information technology (IT). The story of telecom is truly exciting. On the one hand, it saw its first Centre for Development of Telematics, a government-owned telecommunications technology development center, come up.
I know first-hand the excitement that it created, as my sister-in-law worked there in the early years. On the other hand, there were efforts to unshackle the sector from state controls. Telecom was given a private run, with progressive policies. The result: India got a developing nation tag-up from being a third-world country.
Building the nation
Telecom has played a pivotal role in nation building. It gave the IT industry the platform to build services for the world. IT returned the favour with sophisticated IP-based infrastructure that enabled voice, data, and video communications to be delivered over a single pipe. This,coupled with world-class software, was agame changer.
My personal journey in this sector began in the early 1990s, first through software solutions like mediation platforms, OSS, BSS, and VAS and then in the mid '90s to the setting up of satellite communication networks for voice, data, and video, enabling connectivity to far flung locations. From helping businesses connect to the remotest corner of India, to state governments setting up disaster response networks and service providers delivering end to end communication services, these networks were a game changer.
My journey in early 2000 then moved to helping India build its IP backbone, fuelling the growth of the internet, across the government and corporate sectors. At one time 100% of the internet traffic flowed through at least one network architected by my team. We spawned a new breed of professionals called network engineers and created tens of thousands of new jobs, by partnering with academia and industry.
Telecom, driven by IP, became the next big industry that drove India's progress and economic growth. We were no longer catching up. We had arrived. The journey had been breathtaking indeed.
Every aspect of the economy has been positively impacted since. Starting from the humble farmer, who gets Kisan credit on the phone, to tele-medicine, or the busy housewife who gets her daily exercise routines through an in-built app or the daring digital start-ups, all have been enabled by the communications revolution.
Industries in manufacturing, healthcare, tourism, and services, are reaping huge benefits and integrating with their customers journeys' better, delivering delightful experiences.
Policy safeguards, more reforms, investments, and research are some of the ways forward. 5G will usher in huge benefits across sectors. The right policy interventions will enable the sector to thrive. Transparency, technology amalgamation with AI and ML, and an environment that encourages more investment through private and public participation are key to long-term success. Hopefully, like Industry 4.0 we will see a Telecom 2.0 in India, ushering in a brighter future.
I am impressed how Voice & Data has captured the journey of the industry, every step of the way, without missing a heartbeat. Kudos to the generations of editors and journalists who have been at the forefront, capturing the war stories as they played out. A standing ovation to Pradeep Gupta for his dynamic vision a quarter of a century ago, when he saw the need for a dedicated publication focused on the sector. More power to you all, for the next 25!
- Manoj Chugh.
- The author is President - Group Public Affairs and member of Group Executive Board, Mahindra & Mahindra.