On July 31, 1995, India’s first mobile call was made between Writers’ Building in Kolkata and Sanchar Bhavan in Delhi, with the then chief minister of West Bengal on one side and the communications minister in Delhi on the other. After 25 years, in 2020, the country boasts of 958 million active wireless subscribers. Today, India is the world’s second largest telecom market, contributing richly to the country’s socio-economic development and playing a critical role in keeping the economy running digitally during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The companies active in the digital connectivity ecosystem have ensured that telecom services and connectivity reach the poor and the underprivileged. Digital mobility is now emerging as an enabler of multiple other kinds of mobility – social, economic and informational. The telecom sector is raring to provide users the latest technology which will not only revolutionise the way people communicate but also contribute to the economic growth and development of the nation. Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the first mobile call made in India, the Cellular Operators Association of India and the India Mobile Congress, under the aegis of the Department of Telecommunications, organised “Desh Ki Digital Udaan”, an online event to recall the memorable journey and envisage transformative years ahead. While addressing the audience virtually, Anshu Prakash, secretary (telecom), Ministry of Communications, and chairman, Digital Communications Commission, spoke about the 25-year journey of mobile telephony in India and the role of telecommunications in India’s social, economic and digital growth. Edited excerpts from his address…

In India’s two- and a half-decade-long journey of mobile telephony, the country has witnessed phenomenal growth, the adoption of new technologies, and the penetration and proliferation of mobile services across its entire length and breadth. Mobile telecommunications have become central to India’s development story.

I recall the mid-1990s, when mobile phones were heavier in weight, looked clumsy and were essentially used for voice communication. The per minute rates of calls were unaffordable, more so for roaming services. Both incoming as well as outgoing calls were charged.

Of course, that is history. We have come a long way and what we have achieved appears to be unimaginable. Mobile density in India has now reached over 85 per cent. Data usage per month per subscriber is over 10.5 GB, perhaps one of the highest in the world. And the cost of data is perhaps the lowest in the world at just about a quarter of $1. Further, with the fast adoption of 4G technology, we have witnessed a great leap in terms of better quality of service, high speed downloads and high quality of voice, data and video connectivity.

During these years, the telecom infrastructure industry has fared with distinction. India has led the world with the introduction of the concept of tower sharing. Today, the number of towers in India is over 600,000 and is rapidly expanding.

Mobile phones have become both vital and central to our daily lives. The very use of phones has changed in the past 25 years. From just being an alternative to fixed line voice communication, mobile phones today are the backbone for delivery of e-governance, e-commerce, and value-added services, and, most importantly, for empowerment of citizens. Mobile phones today are, without doubt, a necessity. Access to a mobile phone and wireless coverage is considered a basic requirement along with other essentials including water, food and fresh air. The internet and broadband revolution rides on telecommunication networks, with smartphones being our link to the outside world.

We must recognise and applaud the stellar role played by the telecommunications sector in keeping India connected during the lockdown and restrictions necessitated by the country’s fight against Covid-19. It was the telecommunication networks that enabled each one of us to remain in touch with our friends and relatives. In the absence of connectivity through flights, trains, road transport, it was telecom services that kept us all connected. Healthcare workers and doctors, law enforcement agencies, essential services, and government authorities, etc., were able to deliver effectively due to the voice, data and video connectivity enabled by telecommunication networks. Despite the surge in data consumption, I am happy to note that Indian telecommunication networks did not fail us even once during this period.

While we have a reason to be proud of the success of mobile telecommunications over the years, we must also realise that the sector is faced with several challenges. Telecommunications is a capital-intensive sector and requires continual investment in maintenance and renewal of networks as also for the adoption of new technologies. This, in turn, entails capital infusion. India also requires a larger network of wireline communication and wireline broadband infrastructure. Tower density has to be enhanced significantly. Fibre use per capita must increase, and more and more towers need to be fiberised. Fibre-to-the-home connections and internet leased line communication need to be proliferated across the country.

Rural areas, which have shown a huge appetite for data consumption, require better telecommunication connectivity. There should not be a digital divide between regions, between urban and rural areas, and between haves and have-nots.

While the telecom policy landscape has evolved over the years through the introduction of national telecom policies in 1994, 1999, 2012, and most recently in 2018, the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) released in 2018 is highly futuristic in its scope and nature. Concerted efforts by all industry stakeholders are a must to achieve the goals and objectives of this policy. Broadband for all, enhancing the contribution of digital communication to GDP, increasing our ranking on the global ICT development index are some of the objectives that we aim to achieve through this policy.

We also need to prepare, invest and be ready for reaping the benefits of 5G technology, and the opportunities and applications it presents across all sectors, including health, education, agriculture, disaster management, industry, and commerce. The enhancement of our capabilities and capacities in the core ICT sector must be a key focus area. The government is focusing its attention on Atmanirbhar Bharat. It is our belief that efforts by all stakeholders in the telecommunications sector will place India on a higher growth trajectory and bring in major enhancements in the quality of life of all citizens.