1839 To Independence

The East India Company

Coat of Arms issued to East India Company.The seeds for a strong telecommunication infrastructure was first sowed in India
by the East India Company. It was quite appropriate that the first great enterprise that
came to trade in India also brought with it the technologies which would in future become
the basic infrastructure for commerce, trade, and business. Although, of course, at that
time, telecommunication was for quite a different purpose. It was a symbol of British
monopoly–both politically and economically–over India.

The East India Company,
which in 1600 started off as a small band of London merchants trading in spices and other
exotica, soon saw in India a political opening and started a series of military conquests,
thus paving the way for the establishment of a vast empire called the British empire of
which India was to be the “jewel in the crown”. By 1834, while this body was
still a company with shareholders and directors, the East India Company had ceased to be a
trading company alone, and had become the authorized ruler of the Indian sub-continent and
various other kingdoms in the near about regions. It was somewhere in this scheme of
control over the vast regions that the need of a communication infrastructure was first

Comparison Of Milestones
Electric Telegraph patented by Cooke
and Wheatstone in England  
WBO Shaughnessy carries experiment on
telegraphy in Calcutta
1845   1852
“What Hath God Wrought” the
first words to be sent over telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore in the US
The first telegraph line laid from
Calcutta to Diamond Harbour
1866   1870
Transatlantic cable laid   Bombay-Aden-London sub-marine cable
link, the first sub-marine link, established
1876   1882
Telephone invented by Dr Alexander
Graham Bell  
First telephone exchange commissioned
in India
1901   1927
Marconi sent the first wireless
message across the Atlantic Ocean  
Wireless telegraphy established
between India and England by IRT

The world, and Britain in
specific, during the early 19th century was the test-bed of various experiments in the
field of telecommunications. And it was not a matter of coincidence that experiments in
telegraphy took off in India at almost the same time as in other parts of the world. The
oldest record found of telecommunications in India was as early as 1839. Dr
WBO’Shaughnessy, a doctor of medicine, carried experiments in electric telegraphy in
1839 in Calcutta. While similar experiments were being conducted in England by Charles
Wheatstone and William Cooke. This was also a time when Samuel Morse was yet to invent the
telegraph code.

The First Great Experiment

Telegraph service became
available to the public in 1855. In 1850, the East India Company got sanctions from its
Board of Directors to construct a telegraph line between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour. The
Indian Telegraph Department was formed. Under the leadership of Shaughnessy, a team
started the construction of this line on 5 November 1850. The circuit commenced
functioning on 4 October 1851. And consequently, the first telecommunication line between
Calcutta and Kedgeree was opened for traffic on 29 March 1852, primarily for official use.
It was the beginning of large-scale construction of telegraph lines. In 1853, the success
of the telegraph system pushed Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor General, to persuade the
Board of Directors to give further sanctions for construction of telegraph lines linking
the important towns of India. And in 1855 the public finally got to use the telegraph.
This event was a fitful inauguration of telecommunication in the region. In the beginning,
the needle system was in place. But soon with the increasing popularity of Samuel
Morse’s invention, Dr Shaughnessy decided to introduce the Morse code system in India
too. During those days, the operators were trained in England and posted in India. This
team first trained in needle system operation and later in Morse code and came to be known
as Morse Assistants.

The telegraph map of India, 1855.On the historical side, during this period, the fire of independence had made its
first appearance in the Indian heart since the East India Company started forcing its
dominion over one kingdom after another. This fire transformed into a flame when in 1857
“The First War of Independence” was led by a group of Indian leaders–among
them were Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rani Lakshmi Bai, and Nana Saheb–against the colonial

Interestingly, the infant
telegraph network came to the rescue of the British. While news of the uprising took many
days to reach the UK via “fast-sailing boats”, Lord Dalhousie experienced for
the first time the great use of the network which he had helped put up. With fast
communication between its various headquarters, the British succeeded in quelling the
flame of rebellion. Later, Dalhousie was to state, “Electric telegraph saved

Though telegraphy in India
was still in its infancy, the first exercise was a watershed in the history of Indian
telecom. The British administration realized the vital potential of communication and gave
out the go-ahead for all-out support for its development in India. The First War of Indian
Independence had its effect in that the East India Company ceased to exist and the British
Government took over the administration. It also gave way to the birth of overseas
communication. The British felt the need of a direct link between London and India. Dr
Shaughnessy, who was later knighted for his efforts, reminisces his great effort in the
General Report of the Electric Telegraph, 1857-58 in India, “It is now just twenty
years since I erected the first long line of telegraph ever constructed in the world. The
subject has been my occupation or pastime ever since and circumstances have enabled me to
extend that line from 20 to over 10,000 miles.”

The Inter-continental Link

About one-and-a-half
decade later, yet another novel exercise took off. The laying of cables from England to
India both via land and undersea took off. At this time, sending a letter from London to
Calcutta took nearly 30 days. A telegraph line connecting India with Great Britain became
a necessity considering the increasing significance of the colony. Though telegraphy was
already partly possible between England and India, the communication was slow and not
directly reaching India. The Turkish State landlines running from Constantinople to Fao in
the Persian Gulf via Baghdad was the sole provider. In 1862, the Indo-European Telegraph
Department, directly reporting to the Secretary of State in England, was formed. Patrick
Stewart was made the Director General. The objective of this department was to link the
existing telegraph network in India which extended up to Karachi with the line in Baghdad
which would join the Turkish landline in Tehran. The alternate plan was to have a
sub-marine cable from India terminate at Bushire, near Fao, in the Persian Gulf. From
there link the cable to the Turkish state line in Tehran. The first telegraphic
communication between England and India was made on 27 January 1865 via the land route.
The time taken for transmission of a message between the two regions had come down from
over a month to less than a week.

The German Connection

A tariff book of the Indo European Telegraph Company.In 1868, an enterprising German Engineer, Werner Von
Siemens, came to the scene. In March that year, he formed the Indo-European Telegraph
Company in Germany to build an over-land telegraph link from England to Tehran via Germany
and South Russia. To embark on this huge project, he collaborated with various
administrations including the Indo-European Telegraph Department of the Government of
India. The construction of this line soon took off along the route of London, Emden,
Berlin, Torun, Warsaw, Odessa, Kerch, Tibilisi, and Tehran. From Tehran, this
trans-continental line extended to Bushire from where it joined the Indian government line
in Karachi through a sub-marine cable link under the Persian Gulf. After two years of
construction, the 11,000 km Indo-European line from London to Calcutta opened in 1870. The
line which was partly overhead transmission line and partly sub-marine cable was able to
send a despatch from London to Tehran within a minute, while a despatch to Calcutta took
only 28 minutes–a great improvement by those day’s standards.

At the same time, the
Great Northern Telegraph Company installed another telegraph line from the Atlantic shore
to the Pacific shore across Europe and Asia.

These two great
expeditions also laid the foundations of two big modern corporations, namely Siemens and
Northern Telecom.

A submarine cable used by Pender and his men.Also in 1868, one of the largest railway networks got
established, when the Indian Railways flagged off the first train in the history of India
from Ambala to Delhi.

Under The Sea

The successful testing of
the insulating effect of the “gutta percha” by Michael Faraday had paved the way
for its use in sub-marine cables. Soon man breached the obstacle posed by the seas. A
number of sub-marine cables got laid in various seas, culminating in the laying of the
Trans-Atlantic cable by Great Eastern in 1866.

Cable being laid at Spezzia by Mediterranean Telegraph Company.Cable-laying ships, late 19th century.

Insignia of the British Indian Submarine Telegraph Company.The cable from Malta and Gibraltar landing at Porthcumo in England.On the Asian and Indian side too, the activity was not
less. The House of Commons in October 1866 recommended the Government to connect Bombay to
Alexandria by a sub-marine cable via Aden. In 1868, the first major sub-marine cable got
laid between Malta and Alexandria by the Anglo-Mediterranean Telegraph Company. A year
later, in 1869, with the creation of British Indian Submarine Telegraph Company and
Falmouth Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph Company, Sir John Pinder made his intention clear
of linking England to India by an under-sea cable. WT Henley, the captain of Great Eastern
took the job of laying the Persian Gulf Cable. The Bombay-Aden-Suez sub-marine link was
linked to Alexandria over land. In 1870, the legendary “Great Eastern” laid the
Bombay-Suez portion of the cable. The Bombay-London line was completed, when later that
year the Alexandria-Malta-Gibraltar portion of the cable finally landed at Porthcumo in
England. On 23 June 1870, the first cable from India over this link was received by Sir
John Pender on Sir William Thompson’s siphon recorder. The next day, on 24 June 1872,
the line was opened to traffic. This marked the beginning of overseas communication in

The Eastern Telegraph Company

Celebration on the opening of the first submarine cable to India.In 1872, many small telegraph companies were merged to
form the Eastern Telegraph Company, the pride of the British Empire then. Sir John Pinder
became its chairman while Sir James Anderson, the captain who laid the Trans-Atlantic
cable, its general manager. The British India Extension Telegraph Company which had been
formed a few years back laid a 1,800 mile sub-marine cable from Madras to Penang to
Singapore, which was completed in December 1870. This line was opened to traffic on 5
January 1871. So, even at its start, the Eastern Telegraph Company was safely the biggest
telco at that time. Shooting telegrams bearing the hologram “Via Eastern”, this
company, in 1872, owned 8,860 miles of cable, owned or rented 1,200 miles of landline, had
24 stations and two repair ships. Its capital was £3,397,000 and gross annual revenue was
£376,900. “Forty million pounds of capital has been sunk at the bottom of the
sea,” recalled Sir Pender later, adding, “Where it has been sunk, it

By 1877, the British
Indian Submarine had 60 percent of telegram traffic to India and 80 percent from India to
China, Java, and Australia. In 1878, a Joint Purse agreement between the British Indian,
the Indo-European and the Indian Government was signed. The Central Telegraph office was
constructed at Flora Fountain in Bombay in 1869 and remained even after Indian
independence as the hub of telecommunications operations.

John Pender, founder of Eastern Telegraph.The Victorian sub-marine telegraph cable network was to
the East with major cable chains to India, Australia, and Africa. With the West Indies and
South America soon getting linked by sub-marine cables, the small companies, set up to lay
cables in the Western hemisphere, were taken over by the Eastern Telegraph Company. And
the company soon adopted a group name, The Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies.

Eastern and Associated Telegraph Company's logo.By 1920, there were four cables to Bombay and one to
Ceylon. By 1929, there were three cables from Madras to Penang. By the time of the First
World War, the Eastern operated six out of the nine lines of communication with India and
the Far East. During the war, the upsurge of traffic and inoperability of the
Indo-European land-lines which passed through enemy territory led to traffic with India
and the Far East being transferred to the Eastern Telegraph Company. This large
corporation remained in existence until the formation of Cable & Wireless and Imperial
and International Communications Ltd in 1929.

The Entry Of Telephone …
The Birth Of Congress

Cover commemorating Eastern Telegraph Company, 1922.The desire of man to transmit voice over distance gave way
to the invention of the telephone in 1876 in the US. Messiers Alexander Graham Bell called
out his assistant Watson accidentally and the voice was transmitted on the talking machine
which he was experimenting. And a new era in communication dawned.

The telephone soon reached
Indian shores, when the Oriental Telephone Company was set up. In 1881, the company was
licensed by the Government of India to establish telephone exchanges in Calcutta, Madras,
Bombay, Rangoon, and Karachi. Eighteen eighty-two was the year when the first telephone
exchange was commissioned and the public got to use this wonderful machine. That year,
India saw the installation of exchanges in the five towns. Bombay had 90 subscribers,
Calcutta 102, Madras 24, Rangoon 17, and Karachi 11. The licence of operating the service
in Calcutta exchanged hands and the Bengal Telephone Corporation was born. This company
had an impressive record and had 11 exchanges existing and more than 19,000 Direct
Exchange Lines (DELs) as of 31 December 1945. Though a few years back, in 1943, the Posts
& Telegraph Department of the Government of India took over this service.

Some Indian telegrams, 1920-1930.Though the first struggle for independence was successfully crushed down by the
British in 1857, the spirit of independence never died in the Indian hearts. The advent of
education and modern science also saw the emergence of young enterprising men. Mohandas
Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sardar Patel were a few of these enlightened
souls. And “Freedom is our birthright” and “Vande Mataram” were few of
the cries that rang out in the streets. India had woken up to the call of Swami
Vivekananda, “Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached.” The Indian
National Congress was formed in 1885. The struggle for independence was nearing its

The press was also born
during this period. The basic infrastructure of a nation was being established on all
sides. The call of the leaders of the freedom struggle reached far and across the country
despite a series of bans and censorship. Ironically, the modern technologies that
the British brought into the country for ruling over the natives came as a help to many of
these struggles. The movement and communication of the public was far improved by the turn
of the century. And the press also benefited from telecommunication facilities like the
telegraph and the telephone. But still many of these facilities were largely in the hands
of the rulers. And they were still the tools of colonialism.

Wireless And The Indian
Radio Telegraph Company

The almost half-a-century
monopoly of the cable telegraphy ended towards the break of the new century. Historians of
telecommunications consider this development as an epoch-making event. Marconi’s
wireless telegraphy system was a trend-setter for today’s digital cellular phones and
pagers. In 1900, Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company was formed. And by 1927, Post
Office Beam Services had reached India.

A wireless station at Sommerton, UK, used for overseas transmission.Nineteen twenty-two had marked a watershed year, when for
the first time, a group of Indian entrepreneurs got together to consider the formation of
an Indian company for the purpose of establishing wireless service between India and the
UK. In October 1923, the venture got registered under the name Indian Radio Telegraph
Company. The Indian pioneers who embarked upon this enterprise were Sir Rahimtoola Chinoy,
Sir Cusrow Wadia, Sir Ness Wadia, Sir Ibrahim Rahimtoola, and Sir Purushotamdas Thakurdas.
Necessary licences were obtained from the Government of India and the UK and also from the
Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company of London. The agreement of establishment of the
company was signed on 24 February. Dighi-Kirkee and Dhond both near Pune were chosen as
the transmitting and receiving stations, respectively. The Central Telegraph Office in
Bombay housed the controlling traffic department. And finally the day of reckoning came.
On 23 July 1927, Lord Irwin flashed the inaugural message to King George V in England. The
inauguration of Wireless Telegraph Service is a landmark in the history of Indian

Indian Radio And Cable
Communications Company

Interestingly, the rivalry
between cable and wireless had its birth in the invention of wireless telegraphy.
Marconi’s invention led to huge losses of income on the part of Eastern Telegraph
Company. On 6 July 1928, the British Government merged the Eastern and Marconi’s to
form Cable & Wireless Ltd. Another company by the name The Imperial and International
Communications Ltd was also formed. In 1934, the two companies were renamed Cable &
Wireless (Holding) Ltd and Cable & Wireless Ltd, respectively.

These developments had
their effect in India too. On 1 July 1932, the Indian Radio Telegraph Company acquired
operating rights on the sub-marine cables in Bombay and Madras. It was renamed Indian
Radio and Cable Communications Company (IRCC). In 1932, IRCC introduced radio telephony to
India. The Times of India reported the event, “History was made on May 1, when
telephonic conversation between London and Bombay was established by wireless telephone,
the speakers being Sir Samuel Hoare from London and Sir Frederick Skykes from Bombay.
Reception in Bombay was very good, all those present being able to hear distinctly, by
means of ordinary telephone all that was said.” Sir Samuel Hoare said, “It is my
good fortune as Secretary of State for India to be the first Englishman to talk with his
friends in India, and across, 6,000 miles of land and water that divide us.”
Interestingly, the tariff at that time was quite high. Rs 100 was the minimum deposit and
Rs 40 was charged for a 3 minute call to the UK. The charge for calls to the US was Rs 88.
Later, in 1943, IRCC also introduced a radio photo service, a precursor to today’s
fax machines.

Second World War And

The first conference of ITU, 1865.Communication is a major facilitator of emergency work. This fact
was reinforced by the use of it in the Second World War. The early twentieth century was a
period of great events. Events of both tragedy and triumph. First came the two horror of
global history. The First and Second World Wars. Men fought with men for the control of
land and wealth. On the other hand was the struggle for independence in many parts of the
world. One being the sub-continent.

India during this period
was one of both violent and non-violent struggles. If there were on one side men like
Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad walking up courageously to be hanged for the
country’s sake, there were on the other people like Gandhi leading a non-violent
“satyagraha” against the colonial rulers.

In 1912, the British
decided to shift the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi. This led to the rapid
development of telegraph lines and other telecommunication facilities in Delhi.

But the major development
of communication came during the Second World War. By then, India had become a strategic
centre for British troops in their various expeditions in the East. The looming danger
posed by the Japanese from the Far East magnified this importance even more. This was
proved right when the Japanese troop along with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad
Hind Fauj came right up to Indian borders in Burma. Had it not been for some major
reinforcement done in the communication system existing during the period, it would have
been very difficult indeed to stop the Japanese and Netaji on their trek towards Delhi.
Before the start of the War, there were only two radio telegraph services, one between the
UK and India established in 1927 and the other between India and Japan established in
1933. When in 1941 the Japanese entered the War, the India-Japan link was severed and in
early 1942 the Madras-Singapore sub-marine cable link was severed. On the other side, the
Italians cut off the Gibraltar-Malta line delinking the sub-marine lines. A direct
wireless line was the need of the hour. The sanctions for various links were immediately
granted realizing the significance of India’s role in the War. Subsequently, after
the War, India had established wireless links with Britain, Australia, the US, and China.
On 14 January 1942, India-Melbourne-Sydney link was established and on 22 February the
same year, the India-China link came up. While the first link with the US came on 15
August 1944 from Bombay to New York. In 1945, the Comilla wireless station was established
in Bangladesh in the Eastern Frontier. Later, when the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were
dropped, it was this station which played a part in relaying several messages which
culminated into Sir Winston Churchill announcing, “The War in the East is over.”

At about this time, a
wireless link between London and Delhi, the new capital, was also established. By the end
of the War, the Indian Radio and Cable Communications Company (IRCC) had 4 international
telegraph links via wireless and three international links via sub-marine cable system.

Gandhi leading the Dandi March.Parallely,
during this time, the Indian struggle for independence intensified into a new high. The
Khilafat movement and the Civil Disobedience movement started in 1920 and 1922,
respectively. After the repeated promises of granting freedom did not bear fruit, by 1942,
the public had had it enough. Under the able leadership of the Mahatma, the Quit India
Movement took off. After a number of missions were not able to break the ice, on 3 June
1947 the British were at last forced to announce the plan of partitioning India and
Pakistan and handing over the administration to the two new nations.

Crying, On the telecom front, the nationalization of various resources took off in April
1944, when the new Commonwealth Communications Council met in London. In July 1945 again,
the representatives of the various governments met in London. And in August 1945, the
“Canbera Proposals” were made. The conference recommended:

  • Elimination of private
    shareholder interests in the Overseas Communications Services of Great Britain, India, and
    Dominions by acquisition of the shares in the companies by the respective governments.

  • Acquisition of Cable &
    Wireless interests by the respective governments.

  • Establishment of a Commonwealth
    Telecommunications Board (CTB) with powers under that of the Commonwealth Communications
    Council although its function was to be advisory.

Cost Of Communication

The Cost Of Communications From UK: Telegrams (full
rate charges)
It costed £5 for every 20 words to send a telegram
from Europe to India, and £20 to send a message across the Atlantic.
The cost of sending a message to India was £4.
It costed 1s 8d (9p) a word to telegram India, 2s 6d
(12.5p) to Australia.
1s 3d (6p) to Australia and India, around 10d (4p) a
word to North America.
A radio-telephone message across the Atlantic costed
around £4-5 for a minute. Radio telephone messages around the Commonwealth costed £1 for
a minute.

On 6 November 1946, the Cable and
Wireless Act was passed in the British Parliament. 1 January 1947 was appointed as the
“day of transfer” of telecommunication to respective governments.

In 1943, the Government of
India had already taken over the licensed telecom companies in Calcutta, Bombay, and
Madras. In December 1946, the government announced its intention of forming a government
corporation for overseas communication. The domestic telecommunications would be placed
under the Post & Telegraph department, under the Department of Communications,
Government of India.

The Tryst With Destiny

That communication was a
tool of colonialism and monopoly for the British can be seen in the slow development of
the internal telecommunications. At the time of Independence, in India, prior to
partition, there were 9,022 telegraph offices, of which 83 were departmental offices,
4,048 combined public and telegraph offices, and 4,891 railway and canal licensed
telegraph offices. There were 403 departmental telephone exchanges with 91,424 telephones
and 2,348 private and private branch exchanges with 30,245 telephones. In addition, there
were 2,410 telephones in non-exchange systems.

On 15 August 1947, the day of the
reckoning came, of India’s Independence. As beautifully put by Pandit Jawaharlal
Nehru, “At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to
life and freedom. A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from
the old to the new.” Indeed, not only had India entered a new era, but its
communications future had stepped out from the old into a new era with a number of
challenges ahead.

After Independence

India became independent
on 15 August 1947. A new country, but a nation with thousands of civilizational years
behind it. However, India, without the minimal telecommunication infrastructure put up by
the British, did not have much to be proud of when it became independent. This was clearly
seen in the basic telephone networks in just a few cities. For a country with millions of
people, this was hardly enough.

One of the most joyous
events in our history came not without one of the saddest. The partition of the nation on
the lines of religion was to remain etched in the minds of two tender countries in the
form of heart-rendering tales of horror. The marks of terror from this period remain
unforgotten even today. Amidst the carnage were born the two nations, India and Pakistan.
Like people, belongings got divided too. Telecommunications was not an exception. The
telecom assets left by the British were divided between the two countries. The Indian part
passed onto the Posts & Telegraph Department, placed under the ministry of

Independent India

After partition,
independent India had 7,330 telegraph offices, 321 departmental telephone exchanges with
82,985 telephones, 2,166 private and private branch exchanges with 28,155 telephones, and
2,270 telephones in non-exchange systems. There were 537 public call offices in the
country. The total fixed assets of the Posts and Telegraph Department was Rs 31.51 crore.
Out of this sum, Rs 29.26 crore came from telecom services. But a majority of these assets
were ones run by the ex-princely states. These had to be integrated into one national
network. The taking over of these state-run and private systems took more than one year
and was completed in 1950. The trunk and telegraph communications lines at this time were
completely aerial. There were 80,873 miles of telegraph and trunk telephone lines and
9,746 miles of local telephone lines. The total channel mileage for telephone carrier
systems was 11,832 and for the voice frequency telegraph systems 152,508.

Central Telegraph Office, Bombay, used to house the OCS.Under the able leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, the task of
nation-building promptly started. The Five-year Plans got off. The first minister for
communications was Rafi Ahmed Kidwai. He took sincere interest in developing the
infrastructure. The Own Your Telephone (OYT) scheme of that time was credited to him.
Trade and industry were given priority for connection. New exchanges were installed in
many places like Agra, Ahmedabad, Ambala, Barielly, Calicut, Ferozepur, New Delhi, and
Patna. The existing telecommunication infrastructure in the capital city, Delhi, underwent
a major expansion with a 2,000 line exchange getting installed at Connaught Place.

The First Five-year Plan
coming into effect from 1951 had an outlay of Rs 47 crore for the telecom sector. There
were renovation, automatization, and expansion of telephone exchanges in cities like
Ahmedabad, Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Madras, and Pune. It envisaged setting up of a
telegraph office in every sub-divisional or tehsil headquarter apart from every town with
a population of or more than 5,000. It was in 1951 that the first telex service was
introduced in India between Bombay and Ahmedabad. A humble beginning, this culminated into
the development of a nation-wide network for telex which connected the major cities by
1963. On the switching side, things were slow to take off. A large part of the switches
depended on manual boards and Strowger systems. Calcutta had at that time the largest
telephone system in India, which was manual, with over 20,000 lines and 10 exchanges of 50
to 6,000 lines. It was only when some of the big exchanges were destroyed in a fire that
the government decided to automate the system. Consequently, Calcutta Telephones saw the
country’s first automatic exchange in 1953.

telecommunication to and from India got established with various countries during this
period. The Overseas Communications Services (OCS) formed to operate this function
established radio telephony to USSR, Iran, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Bahrain, Singapore,
Indonesia, China, and Poland.

Architects of modern India, Gandhi and Nehru.Launch of Early Bird, the first communication satellite, 1965.A most important development took place during this time.
The formation of Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) and Hidustan Cables Ltd (HCL) in 1953.
ITI was set up with technical and financial collaboration with the Automatic Telephone
& Electric (AT&T) of the UK initially to manufacture Strowger switching systems
and telephone instruments. HCL was to manufacture pair cables with technical collaboration
from the Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) of the UK. The formation of these two bodies
was most necessary estimating the potential of telecommunications, which even at that time
was immense. At about this time, the Institute of Telecommunication Engineers
(ITE)–which later became the Institute of Electronics and Telecommunication Engineers
(IETE)–and the Telecommunication Research Centre (TRC) were formed. The latter
functioned for over 30 years till it was split–developmental function going to Centre
for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) and the engineering functions going to Telecom
Engineering Centre (TEC).

Also, around this time,
following the decisions by ITU 1951 Extraordinary Administrative Radio Conference (EARC),
the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) wing was constituted in 1952. Its
responsibility was to manage and monitor radio spectrum. It was to fulfil the
international obligations of the country in the field of telecommunications and
orbit/frequency coordination in respect of all types of satellite systems.

The Posts and Telegraph
Board was constituted in December 1959. This precursor to Telecom Commission had a
chairman, two telecom members, two postal members, a finance member, and an administration

In spite of a lot of
rehauling and new facility introductions, telecommunication was not really national till
National Subscriber Dialing was introduced due to increased long distance telephone
communications. Point-to-point STD was introduced in 1960 between Kanpur and Lucknow. This
service had an access code “9”. The Hindustan Teleprinters Ltd (HTL) came into
existence in 1960. It was to manufacture teleprinters and accessories in technical
collaboration with Olivetti of Italy.

Crossbar switching
technology was introduced in the early Sixties. But the first experiment to manufacture
Pentaconta crossbar switches was a cropper to introduction of this technology. The first
Pentaconta exchange manufactured with technical collaboration from BTM of Belgium did not
function up to expectations. There were lots of criticism of this system during that time.

The Space Era

The Satellite Earth station at Arvi near Pune.In 1957, with the launch of SPUTNIK-I, the world was to
leap into a totally new dimension in the discovery of science and technologies. It was
indeed a giant leap, as was stated by Niel Armstrong about a decade after when he became
the first man to stand on the moon.

For communications,
satellite was a dream come true. Use of satellites for telecommunications had been
outlined by many pioneers, including Arthur Clark. The geostationary concept of satellite
even remains today as a revolutionary step in the history of communication.

In India, the government
took a refreshing step by taking prompt steps to propel India into the league of the
satellite pioneers. Under the able leadership of Vikram Sarabhai, plans were underway to
establish India’s first satellite station. On 26 February 1971, the station at Arvi
near Pune was inaugurated. Consequently, a satellite station was set up in Dehradun as a
back-up. There was no looking back after that. A series of international telephone links
were established as a result. India became member of many satellite organizations like the
Intelsat and Inmarsat.

The efforts of the early
pioneers paid off later when the plan for India’s own communication satellite for
both communications and broadcasting was kickstarted. In 1976, the Department of Space was
nominated as the nodal agency for the development of a space programme. INSAT 1A was
placed in orbit by the Delta rocket of the US in April 1982. Further, India was to develop
its own launching capabilities later. Today, the stage is set for the launch of our own
Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The space is wide open for India, and the potential is
quite immense.

Telecom In Slow Motion

The middle years between
the first few years and the 1980s was a period of tedious development in Indian
telecommunications. Introduction of new facilities and technologies was really in slow
motion. The result being India was left behind in the race for communication powers. The
importance of communication in the growth of an economy of a country is reflected in the
poor economy of India. Even today, India ranks as one of the poorest nations in the world.
One of the lowest per-capita income, and not to be disattached, a very low teledensity to
mark the completion of 50 years of independence. “If only we had planned our
future”, is the question that repeats in our mind again and again.

Videsh Sanchar Bhavan, Mumbai, the headquarters of OCS and later VSNL. But not everything was dark. The Telecom and Postal wings
of the Department were separated at the circle level in 1974, paving the way for more
focus on telecommunications. Though the division of assets took unnecessarily many years.
The Advanced Level Telecommunication Training Centre (ALTTC) came up in Ghaziabad near
Delhi in 1975. It was funded partially by UNDP and ITU. It provided short courses in
emerging technologies. This acted as the breeding ground of the nation’s
telecommunication engineers and experts. National Subscriber Dialing (NSD) was made
available in 1968 in Madras. The commissioning of Trunk Automatic Exchanges (TAXes) made
this possible. With the setting up of Arvi satellite station, international links were
made possible. Point-to-point International Subscriber Dialing (ISD) was established in
1976 from Bombay to London. Remote area communication became a reality when in 1973 a
project took off to lease transponder of an Intelsat satellite and establish small earth
stations in Aizawl, Imphal, Kohima, Lakshwadeep, Leh, Port Blair, with a hub in Delhi. In
about five years, this task was completed. And India had really been

However, all these
developments took painfully long. The disease of red tapism had infiltrated into our
bureaucracy. An incident symbolizes this negative development. When the selection of a
switching system for a 2 lakh lines factory in Rae Barielly came up in 1972, indecision on
the part of the development surfaced. The search was for an alternative to the Strowger
switch in use at the time. A plan to develop an Indian Crossbar system, which would remove
the deficiencies of the Pentaconta system, was etched upon by ITI. DoT peculiarly did not
even consider electronic systems. In all the debates of choosing a technology, precious
time was lost. The tender process got delayed by two years. It was only in 1979 the search
for a technical partner for the project started off. Tenders were received from NEC of
Japan and Ericsson of Sweden for their proprietary systems. ITI, with technical
assistance from BTM of Belgium, also joined the bid. Finally, the decision was in favour
of the Indian Crossbar system of ITI. Investments were finally made for the factory, and
the production had started. However, it was not even a decade before the production of
this system was discontinued. The Indian Crossbar system idea was a failure.

Red Tapes And Slow-footed

While the world was on a
fast track of communication technology, India lagged behind in adopting new technologies.
When India should have leveraged on the basic infrastructure left by the British and the
first pioneers, increasing red tapism and the comforts of state monopoly made the worse of
existing opportunities. Independent India was to ironically adopt the attitude of the
colonial rulers towards communications. That of considering communication as a state
monopoly. A thing which has to be protected. In the process, the spirit of competition and
business did not get instilled among our telecom service providers for a long time. A
separate telecommunication body did not exist as late as 1974. And an independent
regulator in the form of TRAI came only in 1997, 50 years after independence!

The 1970s-80s were hectic
for most of the nations. Their governments had realized the need of deregulating the
state-run monopolies. Big telcos got transformed into new global giants, not only being
successful in their own country but also in other continents. To name just a few of these
telcos, AT&T got split into several regional entities–the regional Bells. British
Telecom grew into an international player. European and American giants like Motorola,
Ericsson, Philips, Deutsche Telekom, Nokia, and others began looking for opportunities
abroad. Asia which was developing fast was a natural destination for them. At the same
time, a number of new technologies got implemented in the American and European countries.
After successful operation of analog cellular and paging services, countries were looking
forward to switch over to digital technologies. The need to have a digital telecom network
was increasingly felt as a result of the computer phenomenon. A company called IBM of the
US ushered in the information technology revolution. This set the stage to transform the
world into a digital world.

India, the telecommunication hub.In
India, a typical mindset had set in whereby the road to digitalization was met with
roadblocks after roadblocks. The government did not attach too much of an importance to
telecomunications. The investment was too little as 1.4 to 2.47 percent of government
outlays. And telephone penetration was as low as 0.50 even in 1990. Technologically, while
the world had switched over to electronic analog switches and were experimenting on
digital switches, India was setting up a factory to manufacture crossbar switches! As late
as 1980, the backbone of the nation-wide telecom networks were the Strowger switches, and
manual exchanges still largely existed. The state of the exchanges was so poor those days
that the disenchantment of the public with the telephone system in India rose to a new


In 1981, the Sarin
Committee was appointed to look into the problems that the communication industry was
facing. The committee recommended two most important things. One, the switching over to
digital switches. And two, the complete delinking of the telecom department from the
postal department. For the first time, telecom was accorded the importance that it

Probably the most
ingenious and bold step in our telecom history was taken when the dream of designing an
Indian digital switch took form in the setting up of the Centre for Development Of
Telematics (C-DOT). This was a brainchild of Sam Pitroda, who is today regarded as a man
of vision, and was supported by our late Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi was
technologically very savvy and took deep interest in incorporating latest technologies in
every walk of life.

The SEA-ME-WE 2 cable landing at Bombay, 1986.The country advanced very fast in almost every field.
Satellites after satellites got launched into the space. Rocket technologies got
indeginized. India had catapulted itself into the top 5 club of rocket know-how with the
successful test launch of the civilian Satellite Launch Vehicles and the series of Agnis,
Trishuls, Prithvis, and the Nags for its Defence purpose. Those were real days of pride.
The image of Rajiv Gandhi appearing on the national television channel congratulating the
scientists and the countrymen on such occasions still remain vivid in our eyes.

On the telecom side, the
Eighties was a period of telecom renaissance. Indiginization of telecom took off with all
zeal and excitement. C-DOT began churning out engineers of calibre and soon developed a
good R&D base. The research and development soon yielded into the development of the
rural exchanges called Rural Automatic Exchange (RAX) in 1985 and subsequently the larger
switches called Metropolitan Automatic Exchange (MAX). The low-cost C-DOT exchange was
best suited for the rural areas which needed low-to-medium capacities. The spread of
telecommunication to the rural areas commenced forthwith. Perhaps the start of research
and development in the field of telecommunication yielded results when organizations like
the Telecom Consultant India Ltd (TCIL) showed the potential that our telecom engineers
had. TCIL soon groomed itself into an expert in implementing telecom networks. It was soon
a turnkey implementer both inside the country and abroad. Telecom in the country had come
full circle. It was no more one-way traffic. We had started exporting both
telecommunication equipment and expertise to other countries.

The controversial ex-union minister of communications, Sukh Ram, 1995.Also during this time, the government began developing a
packet switched data network for datacommunication called INet and VSAT-based network
called Remote Area Business Management Network (RABMN). This was the beginning of the
development of a datacommunication network which would later become the backbone for
Internet services. Also during this time, there was a boom in the number of Public Call
Offices (PCOs) in India. Suddenly, the old telephone was more assessable and making a call
across the country was just a walk away from one’s home. Also in 1982, standard
International Subscriber Dialing (ISD) was introduced with the commissioning of the
electronic Gateway Telephone Exchanges (GSS) in Bombay, Delhi, and Madras.

In 1986, the two largest
telecommunication companies of India, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL) and Mahanagar
Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) were born. The assets of the erstwhile OCS was transferred to
VSNL, while those of Bombay and Delhi districts to MTNL. They were established as Public
Sector Undertakings (PSUs) with freedom of operations. They have performed well as
companies and today contribute about a third of the total communication industry’s
revenues. Both the companies have been awarded the “navratna” status by the

VSNL's Internet backbone.

The Eighties was a decade of great activity. But
it was also a time of a number of controversies. One such was the rivalry between E10B and
C-DOT switch. The E10B came to India through a technology transfer deal between Alcatel
and ITI. ITI was licensed to manufacture the E10B switch. This was done through
co-operation between the scientists of Alcatel and ITI. The successful development of
switches by C-DOT within a short time-frame gave way to the idea of filling India’s
requirements with its own indigenous switches. The rivalry hotted up to the level of
conflict between Sam Pitroda, the then communications minister, and KPP Nambiar, the then
ITI chairman and secretary, Department of Electronics (DoE). Another was the controversy
over the introduction of analog cellular service. This was strongly opposed by a faction
of people who believed cellular was a luxury for a country like India. They reminded that
a world-class wireline network instead was the need of the hour. All in all, the Eigthies
was a decade of controversies and yet good growth.

The Winds Of Change

Ill-conceived policies,
inefficiencies of the bureaucracy, the incompetence of our sick public sector units, and
various other problems came out in the open when in 1989-90 the country found itself in a
terrible economic crisis. The skeletons could no more be hidden inside the government
closets. The dusty files had fallen all over.

Private basic services being launched in Indore, 1998.Amidst the chaotic period, a drastic rehaul of the economy
was recommended. The liberalization process had been started. The wind of change had
started blowing. And hence, no matter, which party formed the government, the
liberalization process could not be winded back. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)
started taking special interest in financial matters. Under the new regime,
telecommunication was rightly identified as a tool for growth. The Telecom Commission came
into being in 1989. It had a chairman, three full-time members, and two part-time members.
The first step in telecom deregulation was taken when Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)
1956 was scraped with regard to telecom. Equipment manufacturing was opened to private

Introduction Of
1960 Subscriber trunk dialing introduced between Kanpur and Lucknow
1976 International Subscriber Dialing launched first betweeen Bombay
and London
1989 E-mail services started by VSNL
1991 Packet switched data network called I-Net set up
1994 Paging services introduced
1994 Private VSAT services launched
1995 Cellular services launched in Calcutta by Modi Telstra
1995 Internet services launched by VSNL
1996 Private radio trunking services launched
1996 ISDN services introduced in six cities including Mumbai, Delhi,
and Bangalore.
1998 Private basic services takes off in Indore

The coming of Nagarajan
Vittal came as a catalyst to the whole process. The new DoT secretary was fast in both
talk and action. He took up the task of ending all monopolies. He played a major role in
the formulation of the National Telecom Policy (NTP) of 1994. The announcement of the
policy in May that year was a watershed event in the history of Indian telecom. The policy
paved the way for the introduction of all value-added services and the start of
privatization of basic services. However, in spite of the recommendation, a regulatory
body was not formed at this stage. Only after the private services took off that the
government was forced to form a third-party regulatory body.

Though all the value-added
services had commenced, and a few basic service operators licensed, there were many gaps
in the process. The licensing process was too complicated and time-consuming. Financing
the projects became difficult for many of the operators. And oft-repeated complaint of the
private operators has been that the licence fee was just too high for them.

Also, there arose many
operational wrangles between the licensees and the licensor. And it was indeed a strange
situation when the licensee had to address his problems with the licensor to the licensor
himself. The confidence of the licensee on the Department dipped down to a record low.
This led to the formation of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)
in 1997. This was to be a quasi-judicial body with independent charge and control over
tariff fixing and settlement of inter-company disputes, apart from other powers. The
communications industry welcomed this body. Communications in India had finally arrived.

Though, we were still
amidst a number of problems, and there were yet miles to go, the implementation of the NTP
started bearing fruits. Cellular telephony has spilled over from the metros to other
cities and towns in the circles. Paging has also reached the country widely. Internet was
quickly available in India too. It was however costly and not easily available because it
was not opened to the private players.

VSNL’s monopoly over
this service is likely to end soon, with the announcement of the Internet policy and the
subsequent IT Task Force report, which recommends the growing of this sector rapidly by
opening it to competition. The first private basic services has also been commenced in
Indore by Bharti Telenet, while the ultimate domains of DoT, long distance telephony and
international telephony, are likely to be opened to the private operators in the next few

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