On July 31, 1995, when then Union Communications Minister Sukh Ram made the first mobile call from the Department of Telecommunications in Delhi to then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu at Writer’s Building in Kolkata, he told the veteran Bengali politician that the launch of wireless telephony was the most revolutionary thing to happen in the country.
At a time when making that first wireless call cost ₹16 a minute, on a device that was priced at over $500, not many would have agreed with the Minister.
Twenty years later, the ubiquitous sight of people talking, listening to music, watching videos and texting on their mobile phones is symbolic of the telecom revolution that has changed the face of India with significant social and economic impact.
Now a farmer is free to get the latest wholesale price of his produce even before he leaves his farm, a student can get access to the best lectures from the comfort of his home, an activist can start a movement with a single post on social media networks, a patient can consult leading doctors without travelling miles, a housewife can shop for groceries at the flick of her fingers, executives have the freedom to leave their cars to book cab rides through an app and families can watch the latest flick without having to stand in long queues outside the box office.
“Other than the discovery of electricity, there is nothing more liberating than wireless communication,” says BK Syngal, who has been closely associated with the nation’s telecom sector as the former Chairman of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd.
“One is no longer tethered and entangled in wires but completely unshackled. Technologies like 3G and 4G have brought the power of knowledge and creativity in the hands of everyone. This is true freedom and democracy.”
The period since 2003 has seen tremendous growth and dynamism in the Indian telecom sector. A phone has been transformed from a luxury good to a necessity connecting millions of people. Wireless subscriptions have increased from 1.88 million in March 2000 to over a billion now. Wireline telephony, on the other hand, has come down from a peak of 54 million in 2004 to 25 million at the end of March 2016.
There are three main reasons why wireless has scored over wireline. First, the sheer convenience attached to going wireless is just awesome. This explains why most technologies around the world have gone wireless — mouses, keyboards, earphones and even chargers.
Second, the cost and time taken to lay a wireless system is only a fraction of laying a wired network. The third reason is that the number of applications that have been developed for a mobile environment far outweighs a wired network. Which is why even fixed line telephone service providers are now adopting Wi-Fi technology to offer all the convenience of wireless communication indoors.
“Wireless communication has gone beyond just telecom and has been a great social leveler. What socialism or any other ‘ism’ has not been able to do wireless has been able to achieve by bringing an affordable and productive solution to every man on the street,” says TV Ramachandran, former COAI Director General.
There was no mobile phone in 1954 but the popular song from the Raj Kapoor starrer Boot Polish, which talks about having one’s destiny in one’s hand, perhaps aptly describes the profound impact which wireless phones have had on the people of India.