Professor Ashok JhunJhunWala – Lifetime Achievement Award winner – on wireless communications and the digital divide.

Here’s a walk down the memory lane – as guided by a revolutionary of the early Telecom era – giving us a peek of how far the industry has really come

Josun J
New Update
Prof Ashok Jhunjhunwala min

Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala has been an insider in the Indian Telecom sector for close to 40 years. At his keynote address during the Telecom Leadership Forum (TLF) in March 2022, he shared some insights that only he could with his intense and close-up involvement in the sector.


He has spent most of his life strengthening the R&D foundations of the country. He offered immense food for thought on telecommunications, wireless communications, and the rise of affordable Internet in India.

Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala received the Lifetime Achievement Award by Voice & Data in recognition of his yeoman’s service to the sector and the country.

His journey started when he returned from the US and joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras as a faculty. He was instrumental in setting up the research and development work there in areas like Optical Communication, Computer Networks, Wireless Communication and Decentralised Solar and Electric Vehicles.


Wiping out the Telephone Wait Lists

There was a time when customers had to wait as long as 8 years to get a telephone line. The networks were not ready or took long to roll out. Even till as late as 1994, there were barely 5 million fixed phone lines in India and no mobile phones.

Prof. Jhunjhunwala took a nostalgic trip down this road into the late ‘80s when investments to add one telephone line were upwards of forty thousand rupees. “Add to that a 15 percent interest, 8 years depreciation rate and a ten percent investment of annual maintenance charges. Back-of-the-envelope calculations would show that the revenue to break even would be Rs 1200 or more per month.”


This was something most Indians could not afford. Queues were long for telephones because the demand was low in most regions. Cost of rolling out networks was not practical. A telephone line often was a highly subsidized investment. “We realized that this will not change unless we brought in different thinking,” he said in his address.

This scenario changed with two key developments in the late 80s – the introduction of long-distance public call offices (PCOs) where people could walk in and make calls. The two most common terms used then were subscriber trunk dialing (STD) for national calls and International Subscriber Dialing or ISD for international calls. The setting of PCOs enabled people to use phones at affordable rates for their requirements. It also resulted in making telephones available widely.

There was also another unique phenomena – that of differential charges for calls made during the evenings and nights as most of the trunk or long-distance telephone lines were relatively free at this hour.


“Our aim was to bring down the cost to Rs.10,000 per line from 40k,” he remembered. “We needed to look at different parts of the network - the backbone or long-distance network. For this, we targeted optical fibre and digital multiplexing. Then, there were the switches,  we started to explore digital switches. And finally, there was the last mile or local loop - where the cost of digging and laying of copper was high.”

Prof Jhunjhunwala felt wireless would be an optimal solution instead of wired last mile. “We focused on bringing down prices of components using software. We took upon ourselves the task of making wireless in local loop (WLL) solution –our talented young engineers went to work on designing, developing and going into production.” This was the revolutionary corDECT WLL solution that changed the face of Indian rural telecommunications.

“We saw another turning point in the hinterlands.” Village Internet kiosks using corDECTs were mushrooming. Telephony and Internet reached villages at 35kbps / 70kbps – slow by today’s standards but a marvel at that point. Using Internet-based services like education, telemedicine, financial inclusion, government to citizen services and agriculture started becoming available.


“When we achieved the milestone of 100 million phones, we were faced with new challenges.” Base stations, switches, handsets etc. were all being imported. “3G was knocking on the door. We realized that it would now be a standardization game - time to convert patents into standards.”

Prof Jhunjhunwala focused on centres of excellence starting 2005 onwards. “We also got several hundred young faculties and PhD scholars to work in this area.” Our objective was to come up with new techniques and cement an edge in standards.”

Though they managed to get patents in 4G patents, but could not break the platform standards game. “We never gave up – we took support from government and kept going.”


Finally, these efforts paid off and as we move into the 5G era, India has now got into the standards game. The 5Gi standard has been recognized and adopted by the 3GPP. “But we need to accelerate our progress.” Also, fortunately, the focus on manufacturing is now strong with Aatmanirbhar. Handset manufacturing in India is gradually increasing value-addition.

Prof Jhunjhunwala also touched upon the growth of mobile payments in India – an area in which his multi-faceted research also made a difference.

“We realized that branch banking was more expensive than ATM, which, in turn, was more expensive than digital banking and cards. But card payments had a four percent fraud worldwide. We came up with the concept of OTP in India and used messaging in a reliable and real-time way to bring down costs. We wrote down the specs of new protocols suited for the digital age. We also disrupted the space with UPI. One of the largest successes in this segment.” However, this still covers only 15 – 20% of the users in our country.

Finally, he addressed the still lingering problem of the Digital Divide. “This challenge is an unfinished task in India,” he said. Low-income students have not been able to attend schools over the last two years due to a lack of resources to connect or devices to use.

Prof. Jhunjhunwala remains optimistic that we will find ways to solve these remaining issues. Mobile and communications will play a big role in this. “Everything would be on the Internet and accessible on communications networks.”