On July 31, 1995, India made history as the first mobile phone call was made by then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and erstwhile Union Telecom Minister Sukh Ram. Mobile phone services, then, were reserved only for the rich and elite and every call costed a whopping Rs 24.
For the commoners, even making a call to a family member in a neighbouring state or another country meant booking a trunk call. The line would get connected after a 2-3 hour wait and one had to stand in another queue at the telephone exchange to pay for it.
Twenty-five years later, the country has come a very long way as the telecom sector connects over one billion Indians with voice and data services. Network connectivity has reached remote villages and areas where data networks would have been unimaginable.
In fact, it has emerged as a real savior during the ongoing pandemic, becoming a major driver of the economic engine of the country. “In the last 25 years, the telecom sector has witnessed tremendous transformation – in connecting a billion citizens by 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G, ushering in several disruptive technological developments such as innovative Mobile apps, Mobile payments, connected devices and wearables, IoT and m-Commerce,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Communications, Electronics & Information Technology and Law & Justice. Prasad was speaking at a webinar called ‘Desh ki Digital Udaan’, organized to celebrate the completion of 25 years of mobile communications in India.
The big game changer has been the National Telecom Policy of 1994 which opened up the telecom field for private players. “This led to the opening up of basic telecom services. Till 1994, telephone density in India was barely at 0.4 percent as against the world average of 10 percent. It was lower than many developing countries of Asia like China, Pakistan and Malaysia,” said Dr R S Sharma, Chairman, TRAI.
Today, the country has over one billion mobile phone users and connectivity has reached deep into our villages and rural areas owing to affordable mobile plans. From being an alternative to fixed line connections, mobile phones today are the backbone of e-commerce, e-governance and empowerment of citizens.
“Mobile telecommunication has become central to India’s development story. The mobile density in India is over 85 per cent. The data usage per month per subscriber is over 10.5 GB, perhaps the highest in the world and the cost of data is perhaps the lowest in the world at just about a quarter of a dollar,” said Anshu Prakash, Secretary (T) and Chairman, DCC, Department of Telecommunications.
Telecom has been a major driver for government initiatives, the latest being the Aarogya Setu mobile app launched to tackle the pandemic. The honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent an inspirational message to the speakers at the webinar, lauding mobile connectivity in the country and highlighted the impact of advancements in the telecom sector.
In his message, the PM said: “Digital connectivity is literally an enabler of multiple kinds of mobility – social, economic and informational. The companies active in the ecosystem of digital connectivity have done tremendous service to the poor and the underprivileged by providing connectivity. Any government that is truly looking to transform the lives of the people will find digital connectivity resourceful. For example, the way our government has conceived and operationalised the JAM Trinity (Jan Dhan – Aadhaar – Mobile) has revolutionized citizen-government connectivity and shattered silos.”
Companies like Airtel have been at the forefront of the corona battle in India, keeping the country connected through tough times. In the absence of trains, flights and road connectivity, the telecom sector kept everyone connected through voice, data and video connectivity.
“In this tough time of pandemic, telecom has played one of the key frontal roles in our society in keeping everyone connected and calm and most importantly ensuring that the economic engine keeps on running. I don’t know how any nation would have survived this pandemic without a robust telecom network. Even in the most difficult times of lockdown, our people ensured that broadband services were always available to all the people across the country,” Sunil Bharti Mittal, Chairman, Bharti Enterprises
In this 25 year journey, mobile telephony has come a very long way and changed the face of the country empowering millions of people. It has also seen numerous disruptive changes on the way.
“First, it has become affordable beyond all expectations. Second, it also became democratic and ceased to be a rich-man’s monopoly. No other technological tool in human history has erased the rich-poor divide the way mobile telephony has,” said Mukesh Ambani, Chairman, Reliance Industries.
“Thirdly, mobile phones have become multi-functional because of mobile internet. And most importantly, with data becoming affordable, it has become a catalyst for enrichment and empowerment of common Indians in ways that were unthinkable 25 years ago. People are now exchanging knowledge, receiving news, making payments and even studying and working on their phones,” Ambani further added.
The roadmap for the future? “The next 25 years will be all about IoT connectivity, low latency connectivity, a full 5G-enabled network across the country, ensuring that digital payments, online activities, e-commerce, health services, agriculture services, government subsidies going into mobile accounts are all effectively done through a robust mobile network,” Mittal added.
For the government, too, the period ahead is full of challenges in order to improve connectivity and bridge the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots. These will be the driver for telecom policies of the future.
“Telecommunications is capital intensive and requires continual investment in maintenance and renewal of networks and also for adoption of new technologies. This, in turn, entails capital infusion. India also requires a larger network of wired lines. The tower density has to be majorly enhanced and fiber use per capita must be increased. The rural areas which have shown huge appetite for data consumption require better telecommunication connectivity,” Prakash further said.
The webinar concluded with a live panel discussion on the role of the surrounding ecosystem – the component suppliers, technology providers, chip manufacturers, software companies – in making this 25-year journey a success story for telecom.
“I am one of the persons who was involved in that first GSM call which happened in Kolkata. We have come a long way from there in quite a few perspectives. At the time of the call, we were 5-7 years behind the globe and today, we are shoulder to shoulder with the developed countries on 5G launch. That’s a big leap,” said Sanjay Malik, Senior Vice President and Head of India Market, Nokia.
The industry has grown from 1000 people to about 4 million employees today. “That first call was made on a Nokia 2110 and Nokia equipment. Today, out of 4-5 billion calls that happen every day, each of them goes through one of the Nokia elements,” he added.
The move from 4G to 5G is not just a single generation jump. In terms of technology, it is going to be all about taking the country on a complete digital transformation powered by IoT and connected devices.
“The last 25 years were about connected India and coverage. The next 25 years will be all about transforming India. Digital is not just an extension of mobile, it’s a completely different orbit. We have a multitude of services from education, service to e-banking, all riding on the digital highway,” said Anand Agarwal, Group CEO, STL.
What the country really needs now in the form of an ideal network is a potent amalgamation of new-age technologies like 5G, IoT and Artificial Intelligence which has the ability to rapidly scale itself and self-configure.
“I believe that an adaptive network should be our vision for an ideal network. We believe programmable connectivity is what is going to bring about the big difference. The foundation of that adaptive network is going to be based on 3 things – connect, sense and act. It also needs to have a self-reliant end to end security with a lot more deeper encryption even at the optical level,” said Rajesh Nambiar, Chairman and President, Ciena India.
On the social side, the vision is to make 5G and advanced telecom more democratised, making it accessible to the entire population of the country through a smart phone which is affordable and technology which is within reach.
“The vision is to make connectivity an equal opportunity. Everyone getting connected is gaining power. Online education and gaming should be possible for every user. We have been on the forefront for technology on the handset side. We are creating advanced chips for all phones, not just high end ones, to enable end users from all walks of life to have the power in their hands,” said Anku Jain, Managing Director, MediaTek.
As India prepares to take the big leap towards 5G, the technology has the potential to usher in a revolution for everyone. “To build new India, we need to build new cities which will use new technologies. The whole environment has to be built on Wi-Fi. Data speed is of essence for which 5G is just the starting point,” said Dr B K Modi, Chairman Spice Group.
But, as we do that, we need to guard ourselves against cyber crime which has become a big challenge in the country for individuals as well as institutions. Even as 5G provides a more advanced network, it is connected to multiple devices making it more vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Experts feel what is needed is an end-to-end strategy to deal with this. “We need to have an end to end security ecosystem for the operators, application providers and connectivity providers. As of now, we are looking at it element by element, which is fragmented,” Malik concluded.