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India at 75: From no G to 5G – Milestones in telecom evolution

There was a time in independent India when owning a telephone was a luxury. Applying for a new connection took months and sometimes even years.

Telephone evolution
India crossed the 1 billion phones mark in 2015 to clocking 1.14 billion connections as of April 2022. (Pixabay)

As India celebrates 75 years of independence, it can count itself as a leader in many areas, including telecommunications. In the past 75 years, the country has grown from strength to strength, even leap-frogging technological advances, and is now well on its way to becoming a fully digital nation. From “no G to 5G”, here’s a look at some of the significant events in India’s history of telecom.

There was a time in independent India when owning a telephone was a luxury. Applying for a new connection took months and sometimes even years. There was no easy way to make a call.

Just look at the growth in teledensity from 1991 to the present day. The year 1991 is significant because that’s when economic reforms changed a lot for Indian consumers. At the time, there were only six phones per 1,000 people. India crossed the 1 billion phones mark in 2015, in a span of 24 years to now clocking 1.14 billion connections as of April 2022. At the time of independence, there were only about 80,000 telephone connections in India. The framework for growth in the telecom sector was set in 1985 when the Department of Telecom (DoT) was separated from India Post (then Indian Post and Telecommunications Department) to run the telecommunications network. This was further split into Mahanagar Telecom Nigam Ltd (MTNL) and Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL) to operate connections in metro cities and the other for long-distance calls.

Here are some milestones in India’s telecom journey.

Trunk Booking

Before the 1990s, since wireline connectivity was quite poor, only local calls could be made within circles. If one had to call a person in a different locality, the person had to book a “trunk call”. This involved calling an operator who worked at the telephone exchange. In fact, this was a common profession in the 1970s and 1980s – being a telephone operator working with the telephone exchange. The operator would take down the number and name of the person to be called and would ask if the call was to be categorised as normal (regular pulse rate), urgent (2x pulse rate), or lightning (8x pulse rate).

Those were the days of waiting by the telephone for a call to come through – a regular call could take an entire day to be connected, while an urgent call would usually come through within about four hours and a lightning call would be connected within the hour. The operator would manually plug in the call, and could even listen in on conversations (talk about privacy).

Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, telecom connectivity got better and the “trunk booking operator” was soon out of a job. Those days, if someone asked “Do you have STD?” it was actually a question of pride (Clarification: STD here is subscriber trunk dialing), as the technology was not yet quite widespread. This involved dialing a city code (STD code) and the phone number and getting connected instantly without an operator to mediate. Here too, there were slab rates for calls – calls made after 10 pm were charged at 1/4th the rate. STD calls became a new business opportunity for many with STD/ISD/PCO booths being set up all over the country to facilitate long-distance telephony.

However, with the advent of better connectivity, STD call rates began to fall steadily till about the 2010s, when they were all standardised to a single price for calls anywhere in the country, rather than be graded by distance. Also, at the beginning of the last decade, voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and cheaper cellphone tariffs put paid to the business of STD/ISD/PCOs.

The Internet

The internet was available in India since 1986, but only to a select few research institutes and universities. It was only on Independence Day, 15 August 1995, that VSNL brought the Internet to consumers in India, which set the ball rolling for the consumer internet as we know it today. An internet connection in 1995 cost Rs 5,000 a year for a student account (no images, only text) or Rs 15,000 for a TCPIP account. Speeds were abysmally slow compared to today with 133 kbps dial-up modems being the norm. Downloading a simple 1MB picture would take about half an hour. Fast-forward to present-day broadband connections and you can see why phone tariffs dropped. Today, voice, video, and data calls can be seamlessly made over the Internet.

Paging Services

In the mid 1990s, just as cellphones were entering India, there was a brief phase when paging devices (or one-way communication devices) were put into service. Pagers were much cheaper than cellphones, priced between Rs 2,000 and Rs 7,000, and had very affordable subscription rates. Pagers gave people the freedom to move about in cities, but yet be contacted when necessary – either through receiving just a number (numeric pager) to call back on or one line of text (alpha-numeric pagers).

The Mobile Phone Revolution

In 1995, India opened up cellular networks inviting private players into the business. The country was divided into 20 telecom circles, with two operators per circle with a 15-year licence. However, the initial cellphone tariff rates were quite high, going up to Rs 16.80 per minute for incoming calls as well! It’s only in the early 2000s that incoming calls were made free through the CPP (calling party pays) regime.

The Generations

With the advent of cellular telephony in India, the internet began to be offered to users. In the early 2000’s it was through WAP (wireless access protocol), that one could access email over the phone or simple text. As personal digital assistants and smartphones began to appear in the mid-2000’s, full browser-based internet access was also enabled on cellular phones. 2G, 3G, 4G signify the various generations of cellular networks, with the world now at the point of adopting 5G. Access rates have continued to drop to the extent that India now has one of the lowest cellular calling charges in the world.

Also read: 5G mobile services likely to be rolled out in about a month: MoS Telecom

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