Dr T.H. Chowdary
ONE of the phenomenon that has been impressing all over the world and especially in China and India is the rapidity with which the traditional telecommunication networks have been transformed into electronic-photonic transportation systems for storage and carriage of electronified information i.e. speech as in telephony, images as in video, text as in facsimile and data as between computers. Just as roadways, railways, airways and seaways together with warehouses, airports, seaports and rail and road junctions have been enabling the transportation of masses i.e. goods and passengers, the newly transformed telecommunications like electronic-photonic system has become the great infrastructure for an information society in which over 60 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country comes not only from agriculture or from industries, but from information and knowledge-intensive, tertiary sector including services such as education and entertainment; banking and insurance; advocacy and publication; tourism and commerce also. Until the 1980s, telecommunication everywhere had been monopolies either in the Government sector as in the Europe tradition or in the private sector as in North America. Monopolies have become absolutely unnatural and unsustainable, once computers became so inexpensive and so small that they could be installed or incorporated everywhere from refrigerators to ATMs; from telephone systems to missiles; from TVs to cell telephones; from electronic pace-makers to hearing aids; from remote sensing and global positioning systems (GPSs) to control of ignition in automobiles and regulated release of insulin in human body from an implanted capsule. In addition, revolutionary developments in the use of radio frequency spectrum that enable the same frequency or bandwidth to be used again and again over different spaces became possible because of the use of computers and microprocessors for allocation to and change over of the bandwidth used by communicating devices like telephones, are enabling communications to be ubiquitous and all time-in the skies, over waters, on earth; during fair and foul weather, floods and cyclones. One can see that even when floods and cyclones and high winds devastate the electric power and surface (road and rail) communication telephones still work.
There has been spectacular developments as for example those emanating from the world’sleading research laboratories like the Bell Labs in the USA and those of the NEC in Japan, Alcatel in France, Nokia in Finland and Siemens in Germany but as long as telecommunications were a monopoly, there were no incentives for bringing the technology immediately to the market and bring down the prices of telecom devices and communication costs for people. Also for the telecommunication to be a mass product and not only for the classes, prices have to come down, new technologies are to be adopted; and for prices to come down for mass use, monopoly has to be abolished and competition introduced. This is what the greatest information-using country recognised and effected simultaneously in 1984. The USA, Japan and UK abolished not only monopolies but also started privatising the state-owned telecommunications.
Telecom liberalisation, i.e. the move away from the permit-license-quota raj commenced early in the 1990s. The Indian telecom services sector was thrown open to private sector but the entry and interconnection process was to be implemented by the Government department. There are many distortions that we have been painfully but progressively correcting. But events have inexorable way of gaining their own momentum and power. We have by now arrived at a situation, in the decade since adoption of the first National Telecom Policy 1994 and subsequent revisions, which is abreast of the developed world’stelecom facilities and information services that such an infrastructure can sustain. The greatest developments are:
- Scores of private companies brought in their enterprise and capital by way of domestic and foreign equity and debt. About Rs 40,000 crore have thus come into this sector from outside the Government.
- The Government Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has been restructured into a corporation, though still state-owned and therefore suffering from many disabilities.
- While a decade ago, we were adding less than a million telephones per year (only wired ones); currently we are adding 18 million mobile telephones and about 7 million fixed telephones taking the total to about 25 million.
- In the mid 1990s, we estimated that 10 to 15 years after the introduction of cellular mobile telephony, they will reach a plateau at about 50 per cent of fixed telephones at any time. This estimate then was considered too optimistic; it was proved to be totally false. Already, we have 25 million mobile phones, about 60 per cent of the 40 million fixed ones, in the country. In a number of cities, like Delhi and Chandigarh (and very soon in Mumbai), there are more mobile telephones than fixed telephones.
- The prices have come down drastically by as much as 80 per cent for leased circuits, domestic long distance and international telephone calls. If IP telephony is allowed, as it would inevitably be very soon, the prices would further come down.
- The aspiration that one should communicate (whether it is speaking or conferencing or learning or teaching) is being realised because of the very broadband nature of the electronic-photonic transportation system. This is facilitated by optical fiber cables. A pair of human hair thin fibers sustain crores of telephone conversations simultaneously. In our country, in the last 5 to 6 years, 500,000 route km of optical fiber systems have been deployed by a multiplicity of enterprises – Bharat Sanchar Nigam, Gas Authority of India, Power Grid Corporation, Reliance Info, Tata Tele, Bharati Tele and a host of other telephone companies. Not only the 5000 tehsil towns, tens of thousands of villages are also connected by the optical fiber system. It is connectivity that opens up the country side and rural people to economic activity and prosperity. If we want to construct a road for vehicles it would cost about Rs 150 lakh per km while an optical fiber cable system to carry tens of thousands of voices and scores of videos costs just about Rs 3 lakh per km. It is far cheaper to connect villages by optical fiber than by roads and when so linked up, work from anywhere in the world can be moved over the electronic, photonic transport system to offices and homes instead of people moving to work places. Thus, the new telecommunications has a potential to arrest and in fact reverse, the migration of people from rural areas to towns and cities in the information societies into which we are moving.
These developments are transforming the nature and process of business, commerce, governance and education. Government being the largest collector of the nation’sfinancial resources and also the largest spender and has responsibility to be accountable, is moving to electronic Government. One of the most demonstratable, electronic government applications is in Andhra Pradesh through its e-Seva (41 services of the Government and Government-owned enterprises to citizens from hundreds of outlets soon going to 5000 villages). Another is electronic mail. Today, everyday about 6 crore mails are being sent on the Internet. Internet and the mobile telephone are cutting into the normal snail mail. While long distance telephony within the country has become cheaper than a post card, electronic mail is keeping people messaging to one another all the while. These developments will surely cut into the traditional post office. The prospect of this development is a challenge to the post office and there is a magnificent response in that, the post office is transforming itself using telecommunication and information technology in the process.
Great applications like distance education and tele-medicine are being implemented in India like in other countries (Canada, Australia, Korea, United States, United Kingdom etc.) The delivery of education is being profoundly influenced.
Vidaya Vahini in India is connecting 5000 high schools in 7 districts spread across the country by providing real time audio and video interactivity. The linking-up of hundreds of hospitals through telecommunications and use of Information Technology is taking the benefit of specialist doctors from cities to small towns. We have now a number of private banks, wherein any time anywhere banking is being offered to customers. There is more or less instantaneous transfer of money and realisation of cheques, etc. Electronic tendering, electronic auctions and sales on the Internet are cutting down movement, delays and of course, unsocial practices.
In countries like India, where there are several differences like urban and rural, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, electricity “having and darkness” enveloped etc. the new technology can benefit everybody only if everybody is educated and education includes the acquisition of skills to work with the PCs and the Internet. To achieve this goal, highest priority is to be given to the spread of education and computer use. It is true that IT and telecommunications cannot solve all the problems but the solution to every problem can become less expensive and faster. All technologies are tools. They can be used for self-destruction or for individual as well as social progress. The wise in the society evangelise the good uses of technology. Without technology and extensive availability and affordability, no country has even prospered nor has it become powerful. We have a long way to go; but we are on the right path and the way that our economy is growing, we are sure to morph into an information society, like in the developed countries.
It is true that IT and telecommunications cannot solve all the problems but the solution to every problem can become less expensive and faster. All technologies are tools. They can be used for self-destruction or for individual as well as social progress. The wise in the society evangelise the good uses of technology. Without technology and extensive availability and affordability, no country has even prospered nor has it become powerful.