We breathe, eat, and drink telecom," said Sunil Mittal, chairman of the Rs 1,000-crore Bharti Enterprises, in a recent interview to this magazine. This holds true not only for the successful CEO but for every Indian who wants to make the grade in a market which has, effectively, shrunk to a global village.
India is a changed land following the telecom revolution triggered by the New Telecom Policy initiated in 1994. Prior to this, in April 1986, a pioneering state-administered project titled the Mission: Better Communications was launched. Its objective was to enhance subscribers satisfaction by improving services and to increase connectivity in rural areas in a time-bound manner. To provide improved telecom services, two thrust areas were recognised. These were modernisation of existing telegraph services and setting up of a national digital network.
Telecom, which was in effect a preserve of the elite, has since then become a partner in progress for the masses. The revolution in the telecommunications sector has affected not only its functional sphere but all walks of life, redefining the rules of business with each technological accomplishment in the sector. India has one of the largest telecom networks in Asia comprising about 25,000 telephone exchanges, with a total equipped capacity of 26.05 million lines and 21.59 million working telephones. More than 99 per cent telephone exchanges in the country are of electronic type, covering more than 98 per cent of the installed capacity. The long-distance transmission network has about 1,49,000 route-km of radio systems and about 1,08,032 route- km of optical fibre systems. Fully automatic International Subscriber Dialling (ISD) service is now available to almost all countries. The total number of stations connected to National Subscriber Dialling (NSD) is over 18,000. In the field of global communications, tremendous progress was made by the use of satellite and submarine links.
The voice and non-voice telecom services, which include data transmission, facsimile, mobile radio, radio paging service and leased line services, cater to a variety of needs of both residential and business customers. Connectivity has now been extended to more than 3.4 lakh of the total six lakh villages in the country. For functional improvement and reduction in the fault rate, stress is being laid on massive computerisation. Trunk exchanges, directory enquiry services, billing and commercial services are also being computerised at a very fast pace.
Permitting private participation in the telecom sector has opened the floodgates of investments from both Indian entrepreneurs and MNCs. This has done its bit to improve services, increase competition and crush state monopoly and increase connectivity across the country. Since the entry of private players called for a change in existing rules, a regulator had to be instituted to minimise friction in the sector.
Hence, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India was set up 1997. Cellular mobile telephone services were introduced in the country in 1994. There are about 11 lakh cellular customers in India today. To ensure quality service, two cellular operators have been allowed to operate in any service area. Changes in the telecommunications sector have helped accelerate the process of reforms with MNCs, assured of quality telecom infrastructure, making a beeline to set up shop in India. This is Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) chairman S. Rajagopalans take on the telecom revolution: "It is a very forbidding scenario. Our country is liberalising the telecom sector when the teledensity is very poor, unlike the advanced countries where reforms in the sector took place after teledensity reached a high level of penetration. Nevertheless, we have to make the best efforts as the telecom revolution is a prime mover of the economy."
In 1995-96, the telecom revolution gave way to Netrevolution after the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL) introduced Internet services on a commercial scale. VSNL is Indias exclusive provider of international communications services and enjoys the monopoly in global communications services till 2004. VSNL operates six Internet nodes in the country, operated by the Department of Telecom (DoT) and MTNL. VSNL has been Indias largest Internet service provider for the last four years, with a customer base of 2.5 lakh. This has opened new vistas for the techno-savvy and given rise to a new class of professionals called Netpreneurs.
Not only is India leading the communications revolution, it is also helping many smaller nations with the latest in technology. The products of the Centre for Development of Telematics have been exported to a number of countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Russia, Uganda, Ghana, Angola, Namibia, Nigeria and Yemen.
The telecom revolution has also transformed traditional entertainment into infotainment. Consequent to the liberalisation of the Broadcasting Policy by the government, VSNL has provided satellite uplinking facilities to a number of private operators. Such big names in the Indian entertainment industry include Sun TV, Eenadu TV, Asianet, Gemini TV, and Vijay TV. VSNL also provides point-to-point transmission facilities to Star TV and Zee TV. No wonder the telecom revolution has spelt a virtual bonanza for the couch potato.