Wordsmith History : A Brief History of Indian Telecom sector

[Disclaimer : I was a telecom-wallah from 1996 – 2004 in Indian Telecom sector, first in the Federal government monopoly and then briefly in the “competition” induced private sector (2002-2004) and now witnessing our entry into another “quasi-monopoly.” This post owes thanks to my colleague Mr. Naresh Kumar, a reader of this post and asked me to write a history of our good old days. I will, sometime in the future. I strongly recommend the history written by my very senior colleague in VSNL, Dr. CNN Nair entitled “Back to the Dots.” It was patronized strongly by the then Chairman of VSNL, Mr. BK Synghal and as per the French wisdom – “everything ends in a book”, this  will be remembered as the most-enduring legacy of Chairman Synghal’s administration. In an era of rapid change, the most valuable item remains, memory of the past. ]

The brief history of Indian Telecom industry will be described with focus on the people.   It will be chronologically told with “people centric” focus rather than “telecom” or “technology” or both. There are reasons of this approach as will be clear to the readers.

The Imperial Era and Telecom as a natural monopoly : Telegraph and Telephone were like Google and You-tube for British Imperial administration. These imperial administrators, unlike today’s administrators were not answerable to “native” Ministers and by implication to the next election cycle but to the doctrine of “white man’s burden” and to the “business of business”.  One of the side effects of this was exploration of India in a scale never done before and never after.

The Nationalization Era : After Independence, the practical affairs of running a nascent state but an ancient civilization fell onto the shoulders of the “activists and the revolutionaries” of the past. The network expanded – fueled by “Mother India dreams” and “business of administering the country”. Government also discovered that international telephone services, through tariff can be a great contributor to the exchequer. It was perhaps at that time, telecom services were considered a form of “luxury”, the reason I do not know.

The Poverty Politics Era : Twenty fiver years after independence, “poverty” took forefront – from our films to our every move, it was poverty – even those who were not poor talked and behaved under the “simulation” of poverty. It reached its climax in Bengal during communist rule where the word “সর্বহারা” was used liberally – by the man in the bustee to the man in the mansions of Elgin road. The owner of the villa and domestic workers – both sincerely worked for the cause of poverty and were member of the same political party. Telecom was considered “super-luxury” and foreign telephone calls were charged at a rate that by thinking of this brings tears to the eyes of the old telecom wallahs.

The Age of Telecom License : Competition.  New Telecom Licenses. Foreign Operators. Divestment. The only metaphor that comes to my mind is Indian kichdi (Bengali version) with everything poured in with a fair idea that something edible will eventually happen. This is the jugaad at its core. Foreign Telecom consultants having a field day.  A revenge perhaps on the spiritual consultants of India who had a field day in the West a decade and half back. This the true “Karma Cola” – Coca Cola made a re-entry in India. Cheaper connectivity from India to foreign lands became a great driver for Indian software export and South India’s destiny changed. The Eastern India, notably Bengal was creating “Standard Design Factory” which eventually became the seat of “Software Design Factory.”  Except poetry written by Government employee communists during free time with life and livelihood secured by the state and any disciplinary action for no work or misconduct protected by the unions, “সর্বহারা” is seldom heard.

The Mobile Era : Interconnection (i.e. how two networks terminate at a single point with one end of the state owned monopolies and other end of the new private operators with foreign partners, money and investment and consultants)   was the central issue politically, operationally and at the ground level. As private mobile players expanded aggressively, at a certain point when mobile to mobile was more than landline to landline or mobile to landline or landline to mobile. interconnection became irrelevant and it was the beginning of the end for legacy players whose major cost was sunk in underground copper cable. The “Missed Call” system of communication was invented and perfected and thus all foreign and native consultant’s power point of average revenue per user did the reverse of famous Indian snake charmer.

The Era of utter Confidence and utter Confusion : Mobile and Internet made the sector hot – hot enough to attract social attention. Ministries were set up, tax holidays, IT parks were built, many old bureaucrats were rubbing their eyes and getting trained as how to send an email and for the first time in India, possibly after the Gupta Empire, there was a “native confidence” that the country can be a super power. What super, what power, nobody knew pretty well. Old money mingled with New Money and in utter defiance to the dream of classless society, even in Communist Bengal, mobile numbers became a class-status.

The Meltdown : Telecom sector entered the phase of “competitive meltdown” – the  pendulum moved to one extreme – very soon it was observed that even the great Indian market of billions and billions (men and money) was not able to bear the weight of competition at such  a scale. Consolidation and Dying Out. Exits and policy makers were at a loss and Courts intervened aggressively seldom seen earlier. Liberty from the legislature and the executive ended with an iron-clad control by the Judiciary.

The Blue Whale mode of Monopoly : Once a dream of great telecom companies to be owning both the pipe and what goes inside (content) was re-born. The money from refining oil and from other avenues were marshaled and a new business model in Indian telecom was born where like Marx inverted Hegel’s theory, voice to data was inverted to “hook by data, catch by low cost and high speed, make voice a fundamental right of being free and always available.” I think this dream of controlling both pipe and content is a pipe-dream. Why ? Donkeys are not horses. Whales are not goldfishes.

If someone asks me to tell what is the future lies ahead for Indian telecom sector, my insincere answer is : quasi-monopoly with high chance of soft to hard regulator and policy capture. Later on, possibly revolt and breaking up – the Ma Bell like scenario.

My sincere answer, though is : consult an Indian astrologer. 🙂

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