By Dr Satish Misra
Thanks to the communication revolution of, one can communicate across the world in a flick of a second today. From a landline to mobiles, it has been a huge leap forward. Phone has travelled from the possession and exclusive domain of rich, powerful and privileged ones to common citizens transforming lives of millions.
It is only about two decade since mobile telephones were introduced in India. On July 31, 1995, the first cellular call on a mobile was made between West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and Union Communication Minister Sukhram. On April 3, 1973 Motorola manager Martin Cooper placed a cellular phone call to head of research at AT&T’s Bell Lab Dr Joel S Engel. Thus began the era of handheld cellular mobile phone.
Today, in a period of 19 years, there are about 900 million mobile phones in India while there are only 29 million fixed landlines. Teledensity had reached little over 73 per cent. The craze for mobile phones actually stared in the later half of 90s when possessing a mobile phone was considered a status symbol. A call from the mobile used to cost Rs 17.
Mobile calls were quite expensive. To bypass this, people learnt to communicate to the point and even pleasantries like hello, how are you were suddenly forgotten. People used to carry a mobile and a pager. Pager to get the caller’s name and number and the mobile to make a call that too, grudgingly as both incoming and outgoing calls were charged.
But now of course the telecommunication companies are running behind the users to makes them avail their services. In those initial days consumers had to chase companies. Nokia was the first mobile to market their handsets and slowly many others made their way into the Indian market.
Handsets are available in all forms, colours and sizes which offer multiple services from social media sites to internet communications.
In the past around 66 years I have seen phones of all shapes and sizes change colours, as well as dials getting modified from rotary to push button phones; mechanical to digital and stationary to mobile. It has been nothing less than a communication revolution happening in front of my own eyes.
Even mobiles have been transformed from making calls and sending text messages (SMS) even extended long messages to audiovisual messages to video calling. Phones have become virtually offices on the move. One can type, email, send and receive fax, transact business, transfer money, access bank accounts. Almost every day new apps for mobile users are coming making life simpler. From Blackberry to Android all models are vying with each other to make a place for itself.
My earliest memory of the phone goes back to a time when I was about four years old.
I watched my father talking to his brother-in-law on a black phone. It was a Railways phone. Father had promised me to show the phone, and I was too thrilled. I too could hear the voice of my Mama, who was in central Railways. It was a Railway phone, and my father was talking from a small nondescript Railway station in Bundelkhand region to Jhansi where my mother’s elder brother was posted.
My father, who was in the state police in Uttar Pradesh, requested the Station Master who allowed us to say hello and speak few words using the official phone at the station.
Having a landline was a status symbol then as very few, high and mighty, had the privilege of a having a landline at their place of living. One would see telephone wires stretched on poles running along railway tracks or roads in towns and cities.
Instead of a phone, telegram was the mode of communication for the poor and under-privileged and that too invariably brought news of serious illness or death of a close and dear ones. But then telegrams too became colourful as people started sending festive messages on weddings, passing of examinations or on other successes in life of friends and relatives.
I grew up in small towns and went to stay with my grandparents for schooling as my father was in a transferable job. He would get two transfers in a year. I used to watch with envy when I saw a landline phone at the residence of a friend who had a privileged background.
In mid sixties, I enrolled in Lucknow University for graduation. I was lucky to get a place in the hostel where was amazed to see a coin phone. One had to keep the coin ready in hand and dial the desired telephone number inserting the finger in a hole in which the number was written. The finger had to be inserted till the end and the very moment, the person on the other side responded with a hello, one had to insert the coin in the slot. The two sides could talk. But the call time was limited so only urgent matter could be communicated.
In few words, telephone was still not considered a common man’s need. The phone lines were limited, and the government alone decided the individual’s or society’s communication needs. It must be mentioned here that first experimental telegraph line was started in 1850 between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour. In 1851, it was opened for the use of British East Indian Company. The construction of 4000 miles of telegraph lines was started in 1853.
January 28, 1882 is a Red Letter day in the history of Indian Telecommunications. On this day, Major E Baring, Member of the Governor General of India’s Council confirmed the opening of Telephone Exchange in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay (Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai). The exchange at Kolkata named “Central Exchange” was opened at third floor of the building at 4 Council House Street. The Central Telephone Exchange had 93 subscribers.
Despite such a history, pace of development was slow as the government had other priorities. Thus first subscriber trunk dialling (STD) route was commissioned between Lucknow and Kanpur in 1960 which enabled people to establish contact by dialling the number of the other city by prefixing the city code before the telephone number from one’s own landline phone or from a telegraph office.
In 1970, came to New Delhi and was more exposed to use of phones. I would use public phones where one had to put coins. The use of STD facility was spreading, and people were talking to friends, relatives, business associates in other cities and towns.
One had to wait for years to get a phone connection, and privileged ones could get their phones sanctioned through ministers and later Member of Parliament. I can recollect a media colleague getting a phone connection at his residence by the then Minister of Communication.
I reached Berlin in February 1973 for further studies. There I saw telephone booths all around and telephones in almost every household. When I came back for collecting research material for my Ph D thesis and I had to contact a friend back in Germany, I had to go the Post and Telegraph office to book a call which materialised in about two hours.
Then I returned to India in 1983. The scene had not much changed as availability of phone connection was still a matter of privilege or years long wait in the queue. It was often too frustrating.
But then things started moving with the victory of the Congress in 1984 general elections. Under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi leadership, the government took steps to make communication an instrument of social and economic change. Computers came, and telephone connections became relatively more accessible.
The country underwent a sort of the communication revolution as in the last 30 years; unimaginable changes have taken place. Today there are more mobile connections than landline phones.
As a media person, I have used telegrams, telex, fax and internet communication to send news reports. From going to Post and Telegraph offices for sending telegrams and telexes to finding a fax machine, life became simpler and communication faster with the coming of computers including laptops.
Coming of Internet Protocol (IP) telephony, also known as Internet telephony or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), is rapidly gaining ground against traditional telephone network technologies. In Japan and South Korea up to 10% of subscribers switched to this type of telephone service as of January 2005.
IP telephony uses a broadband Internet service to transmit conversations as data packets. In addition to replacing the traditional plain old telephone service (POTS) systems, IP telephony also competes with mobile phone networks by offering free or lower cost service via WiFi hotspots. VoIP is also used on private wireless networks which may or may not have a connection to the outside telephone network.
I am wondering what is more in store for me.
Dr Satish Misra is a Senior Journalist and a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation