A MIND-BLOWING ROLLER-COASTER
Voice and Data|August 2020
A MIND-BLOWING ROLLER-COASTER
As our dependence on telecom infrastructure grows exponentially, security and reliability of this infrastructure assumes ever greater importance
R CHANDRASHEKHAR

For the millennial and Gen Z of today, it may be hard to imagine that the first mobile call in India was made just 25 years ago on 31 July 1995. The mobile device is now an integral part of our social and economic fabric. One cannot imagine life without it. The advent of the COVID crisis has made us much more aware of this reality. COVID has been on the ascendant in India since March 2020 and shows no signs of retreating anytime soon. The monitoring of exposure to COVID infection risk is now done via the Aarogya Setu app on the mobile. Healthcare regulations have been relaxed to allow and even encourage telehealth services. Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence in India is working on an AI-based mobile application for preliminary screening of patients for COVID, based on cough sounds. Visits to hospitals for treatment with or without COVID have become the last resort with remote health services being the preferred and less risky mode for both patients and medical personnel alike. Schools and colleges have all resorted to virtual classrooms to the extent feasible. Organizations, governments, and courts are conducting their business almost entirely in the virtual mode.

Nothing could have underlined the criticality and urgency of ensuring countrywide availability of mobile broadband services as effectively and emphatically as the present crisis has done. Mobile connectivity was already important before COVID-19 struck. It has now become critical, not only to the economy and society but to healthcare, education, and literally life itself. Mobile telephony is a critical national infrastructure more than ever before. Protecting, expanding, and modernizing it is unquestionably a major national priority.

But how prepared are we for this mobile-telephony dependent future irrespective of the trajectory of the COVID pandemic? Before coming to that question, on this occasion of the silver jubilee of the first mobile call in India, it is fascinating to reflect on how we reached here before visualizing the exciting future that lay ahead.

No roller coaster ride can match the dizzying pace, the highs, the lows, the twists and turns of the mobile telecom services sector in India. The advent of mobile telephony and the private sector into telecom in the country set off a chain of events, which made history and has already re-scripted the future of India.

The start of the journey, like any roller coaster ride, was beguilingly slow. Against the backdrop of economic liberalization initiated by the Narasimha Rao government, NTP 1994 introduced mobile telephony and opened the gates to the private sector with two operators in each circle. But NTP 1994 belied expectations and did not exactly set the Ganga on fire. Services were expensive and handsets were unaffordable except to the rich. Consequently, uptake was low, and penetration minimal and largely confined to urban areas. Worse, the operators who succeeded in obtaining licenses through a fiercely competitive bid process discovered that they had grossly misread the market, bid way too high, and were afflicted by the winners’ curse. They mounted pressure on the government to revise the contracts. These pleas were backed by International Financial Institutions like the WB and IFC. Soon, the Government too realized that the policy had become a constraint rather than an enabler and began looking for new solutions.

After protracted and tortuous reassessment, the Vajpayee Government came up with NTP 1999, which brought in revenue share instead of upfront payments and introduced 2 more mobile operators in each circle, including the state-owned BSNL. The momentum started picking up thereafter as the operators began to understand the market better and were able to tailor their offerings, accordingly, using flexibility that the revenue share regime gave them. Still, growth was not quite meteoric. The Unified Access Services License (UASL) was introduced in 2003-04, which enabled operators to offer landline, mobile, and a range of other services through a single license.

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August 2020