Voice and Data|August 2020
While India needs to amend telecom-sector policies, it also needs to shift the focus of Aatmanirbhar Bharat to high-value components and activities

Twenty-five years is a long time for any measure and when it comes to technology, a period of two-and-a-half decades denotes an era change. The telecommunication industry in India dates back to 1850 when telegraphy – the long-distance transmission of textual messages using symbolic codes – was started between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour by the British East India Company and it continued to evolve organically till the early 1990s. The government separated the Department of Telecom (DoT) from Indian Post and Telecommunication Department in 1985 and anointed Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) and Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) in 1986 to operate telecom services in Delhi and Mumbai, and international long-distance operations, respectively.

The real telecommunication revolution in India started post-liberalization and privatization of the economy and the subsequent announcement of the National Telecom Policy (NTP), 1994. The country made its first mobile telephone call on 31 July 1995 on a 2G network. Since then the telecom transformation has been awash with structural changes, hyper adoption, technology evolution, value creation, bankruptcies, litigations, and regulatory changes. Despite such tumultuous activities this virtual infrastructure has enriched our personal and professional lives, kept us globally relevant, and been our savior during the cataclysmic times of COVID-19.

Christopher Columbus never set out to prove that the earth was round, but the structural evolution of India’s mobile telephony sector has proved what the humans have known axiomatically, the earth is round, for thousands of years. It is enigmatic that the market structure of Mobile Service Provider (MSP) has actually come a full 360 degrees in the last 25 years.

The sector started its journey with two players (duopoly) per license area and then morphed into becoming an oligopoly with the fourth cellular license being awarded in 2001. From there on, the sector got distorted to becoming an unsustainable hyper-competition, with the advent of National Telecom Policy 2012 which introduced the Unified Licensing Regime and delinking of the spectrum from the license. The inevitable, consolidation post 3G was an outcome of the policy bane which led to bankruptcies, closures, and value destruction in a sunrise sector. We, resultantly, conflated to a sustainable oligopoly once again – a structure that has found economic and regulatory acceptance globally.


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August 2020