From having 150,000 telephone exchange lines in 1947, India now is the world’s second-largest telecommunications market with 1,200 million telephone subscribers
The automatic telephone exhibit at the Indian Industries Fair in 1955; (Photo: Getty Images)
Calcutta somehow has been intrinsic to India’s telecom story. It was from the city to Diamond Harbour that the first experimental telegraph was started in 1850 in British India. Nearly a century and a half later, when mobile telephony landed on Indian shores, on July 31, 1995, it was to Jyoti Basu, the then chief minister of West Bengal, that Sukh Ram, the then Union telecom minister, made the first call, on Nokia cell phones.
When India gained Independence in 1947, the country had 150,000-odd telephone exchange lines, and state-run agencies under the posts and telegraph department manned the sector. The telephone remained a symbol of status rather than an object of utility for a long time, the number of connections growing from a mere 80,000 in 1948 to 980,000 in 1971, 2.15 million in 1981 and 5.07 million in 1991.
Top image: A cellphone tower brings connectivity to rural Rajasthan, 2015; (Photo: Purushottam Diwakar)
In 1981, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, signed contracts with French firm Alcatel CIT for a merger with Indian firm ITI, to make 5 million lines per year, but it did not fructify. It was at Rajiv Gandhi’s behest that technocrat Sam Pitroda set up C-DOT (Centre for Development of Telematics) as an autonomous R&D body in 1984. The following year, the department of telecom was hived off from the posts and telegraph department. A year later, the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) was set up to handle telecom services in Mumbai and Delhi, and the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL) to drive overseas services. The year 1994 saw the birth of a national telecommunications policy, and the arrival of mobile telephony the year after revolutionised the telecom landscape further. The sector acquired a watchdog in TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) in 1997. From 2002 onwards, select private players were allowed to provide both basic and cellular service.
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Today, India is the world’s second-largest telecom market after China, with 1,181 million subscribers. The country is now on the cusp of introducing 5G telephony, having recently completed auctions for spectrum. n