The telecom journey

Print edition : October 10, 2003

The `telecom revolution', which arrived in India in the 19th century, continues with great momentum in the 21st century.

IF the three-year-old Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited is celebrating 150 years of Indian telecommunication, it is no surprise. For, as a public sector enterprise carved out of the Department of Telecommunications, which had been a part of the Department of Post & Telegraph, BSNL can claim a history of 150 years behind it in providing connectivity through telecommunications to the teeming millions in the country. This history kindles nostalgic memories of the efforts made by pioneers in the past to help people communicate with each other through telegraph and telephone.

The first experimental electric telegraph line was started between Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Diamond Harbour in November 1850. A year later the line was completed and opened for the East India Company's traffic. The person who conducted this experiment and thus pioneered telegraph and telephone in India was Dr. William O'Shaughnessy and - strange as it may sound - he belonged to the Public Works Department in which the Post and Telegraph Department occupied a small corner. The successful working of this experimental line led to the construction of 4,000 miles (6,400 km) of telegraph lines connecting Calcutta and Peshawar in the north via Agra and Bombay (now Mumbai) through Sindhwa Ghats, Bombay and Madras (now Chennai) in the south as well as Ootacamund (now Udhagamandalam, or Ooty) and Bangalore. A regular Telegraph Department was set up in 1854 when the Telegraph Act was enacted and telegraph facilities were thrown open to public traffic.

In the beginning the Indian Telegraph Department (ITD) comprised operating and maintenance staff, headed by one Superintendent of Telegraphs and with three Deputy Superintendents in Bombay, Madras and Pegu in Burma and Inspectors at Indore, Agra, Kanpur and Banares. The first Superintendent was Dr. William O'Shaughnessy, who later became the first Director-General of ITD. The first India-Ceylon cable was laid in 1858. In 1865, the first Indo-European telegraph communication was effected and two years later a new cable was laid between India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1873, Duplex telegraphy was introduced between Bombay and Calcutta. In 1875 the ITD supplied the first private telephone line and two years later it erected a telegraph line between Srinagar and Gilgit on behalf of Maharaja of Kashmir. In 1880 the ITD transferred the responsibility of the Ceylon Telegraph System to the Ceylon government. In 1881, licences were granted to private companies to operate telephone systems in Madras, Bombay, Rangoon (Yangon) and Calcutta and in 1882 a telephone exchange was opened at Bombay. The year 1885 saw the introduction of quadruplex telegraphy and provision of copper wire, instead of iron wire, for transmission between Bombay and Madras. In 1887 the ITD provided facilities to the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to communicate Storm Signals to all places.

The year 1888 marked an important milestone. It was in that year that the Indo-European Telegraph Department, which was later known as Overseas Communications, was merged with the ITD. However, it was decided that the administration reports of these two departments should be separate so as to show how each unit affected the finances of the country. In 1895, phonograms were introduced for the first time in Bombay and Calcutta. And in 1902, the first wireless telegraph station was established between Saugor Islands and Sandheads and a year later the departmental wireless telegraph was introduced.

The next important year was 1905 when the control of the Telegraph Department was transferred from the PWD to the Commerce & Industry Department except for matters connected with buildings and electricity. A year later, the baudot system was introduced between Calcutta and Bombay and between Calcutta and Rangoon. In 1907, women signallers were employed for the first time. In 1910 the technical branch came into being as a separate organisation under the Electrical Engineer in Chief. The next two years saw the introduction of Circle Scheme and decentralisation and two years later, that is, in 1914, the Postal and Telegraph Departments were amalgamated under a single Director-General. At the same the control of the P&T Department was reverted to the PWD. The year also witnessed the opening of the first automatic exchange at Simla (Shimla) with a capacity of 700 lines and 400 actual connections. This exchange had the distinction of employing women operators for the first time, in 1919. In 1920, the Madras-Port Blair route was opened for wireless telegraphy and a year later National Cash Registers were introduced in Calcutta CTO for the first time.

Equipment that was in vogue at the different stages of the telecom system's evolution in India.

A major reorganisation of the department took place in 1925 when the accounts of the Indian Posts and Telegraphs were reconstituted to examine its true fiscal profile. The attempt was to find out the extent to which the department was imposing a burden on the taxpayer and bringing in revenue to the Exchequer and how far each of the four constituent branches, namely postal, telegraph, telephone and wireless, was contributing. It was also examined whether the rates charged from the public were inadequate or excessive. The P&T Department was a victim of the universal financial and economic depression witnessed in 1930. Several economy measures were introduced on the advice of the P&T Sub Committee of the Retrenchment Committee presided over by Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Jr.

Interestingly, from the beginning the P&T Department was run on welfare lines without profit motive. The Annual Report of the Department in 1931 mentioned that the policy of the government was to administer the department in such a way that there was neither a substantial profit nor a substantial loss. It conceded that the achievement of this ideal had not been possible. One of the contributory factors was the pay revision. Though the department was meant to run on commercial lines, it was debarred from observing strict business principles in many directions. Many of the purposes, which it was required to serve, were non-remunerative. After the implementation of the Federal Financial Integration Scheme in April 1950, the administration of the entire network of telegraph and telephone systems, including those previously existing in the former princely states, became a major adventure. The number of telephone exchanges absorbed from the princely states was 196. Soon after absorption, an attempt was made to improve their technical efficiency by replacing obsolete and unserviceable equipment.

Meanwhile, several events took place. Radio telephone communications between England and India were opened in 1933; the Indo-Burma Radio Telephone service started functioning between Madras and Rangoon in 1936; the Burma and Aden telegraph systems, which were a part of the Indian telegraph system, got separated in 1937; deluxe telegrams with foreign countries were introduced in 1937; the Bombay-Australian wireless telegraph service and Bombay-China wireless service were inaugurated in 1942; the Bombay, Calcutta and Madras Telephone Systems were taken over by the ITD in 1943; a Telecommunications Development Board was set up; the Bombay-New York Wireless Telegraph Service was commissioned in 1944; Hindi telegram in Devnagari script was introduced, and the Own Your Telephone Scheme was inaugurated in 1949.

In 1950, the India-Afghanistan Wireless Telegraph service, radio telephone service between India and Nepal, wireless telephone service between India and Indonesia and private priority telegram were inaugurated. The Own Your Telephone Exchange scheme began to operate in 1950. In the following year, the radio telephoto service was started and wireless telegraph links to Thailand, the Soviet Union, Egypt and Iceland were provided. These were followed by wireless telephone links to Iran and Japan and the launch of the telex service in Bombay. Later, the first coaxial route between Delhi and Agra and the first subscriber trunk dialing (STD) route between Kanpur and Lucknow were commissioned.

In the 1960s, the first microwave route between Calcutta and Asansol was opened, the first crossbar local exchange was commissioned at Mambalam (Madras) and the first crossbar trunk automatic exchange was put into service in Madras. The 1970s witnessed the installation of the SPC gateway telex exchange and introduction of the international subscriber dialled telex service, the introduction of the first digital microwave system in the Calcutta Junction network, the setting up of Telecommunications Consultants India Limited, and the commissioning of the first optical fibre system for local junction in Pune.

In the 1980s, the first satellite earth station for domestic communications was set up at Secundrabad, the Troposcatter system link with the Soviet Union was inaugurated, the first SPC electronic digital telex exchange and the first SPC analogue electronic trunk automatic exchange were commissioned in Bombay, the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) was established, the first mobile telephone service and the first radio paging service were introduced in Delhi, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. (MTNL) and Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (VSNL) were set up, and the international gateway packet switch system was commissioned in Bombay. The 1980s also saw the restructuring of the P&T Department into the Department of Posts and the Department of Telecommunications, the constitution of Telecom Commission, and the reorganisation of telecommunication circles with the Secondary Switching Areas as the basic units.

The 1990s witnessed the commissioning of the I-Net Exchange, introduction of the voice mail service in Delhi, the announcement of a National Telecom Policy, the setting up of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the introduction of the WLL telephone system in Delhi, the commissioning of the Indo-Nepal Optical Fibre link, the opening up of basic telephone services to the private sector, the announcement of the new ISP policy, and the separation of the Department of Telecommunications into the Department of Telecom Services and the Department of Telecom Operations.

As the new millennium dawned, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal was set up, the national long-distance service was opened up for private participation and BSNL was set up. This was followed by the tabling of the Convergence Bill in Parliament, the announcement of policies for the GMPCS service, PMRTS and UMS, privatisation of VSNL, opening up of international long-distance service for private competition and the launch of Internet telephony.

Thus the journey towards telecom revolution, which started in the middle of the 19th century, continues in the 21st century.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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