ATC India's Umang Das recalls the day India's mobile revolution began

A mobile revolution was unimaginable when Jyoti Basu as West Bengal chief minister made the first mobile call to Sukh Ram, then Union communications minister, on July 31, 1995.

The setting for the historic call was plush – a room in Kolkata’s Grand Hotel. There was Mr Basu with our general manager holding a special Nokia phone. In Delhi, Sukh Ram held a similar phone. With crystal clear voice quality, those first two ‘hellos’ went down in history as a milestone.

Yet history happened by accident. At that time, I was the CEO of Modi Telstra (later branded as Spice) and part of the B K Modi group. Sometime in mid-1994, Mr Basu invited Dr B K Modi, who was the chairman of the erstwhile Modi Telstra, and me to his Writers' Building office.

The Modi group was known for introducing innovative new technologies in India such as Continental’s radial tyres, Xerox copiers, Alcatel’s electronic switching, and Olivetti desktops.

We assumed it was a courtesy meeting. But, at the end of the conversation, Mr. Basu declared that Calcutta should be the first Indian city to have a mobile telephony network. Dr Modi committed an exact date: July 31, 1995.

Between leaving the CM’s office to getting out of my car later, my mind began humming on how to get going on the project with all its complexities.  

We didn’t even have an equipment partner at the time. We flew to Australia to talk to our joint venture partner, Telstra, to help us find a suitable technology partner.

The hunt for a suitable partner to roll out a network brought us to Nokia, which had been a sleeping giant till then in Australia. Nokia was initially reluctant, perhaps because of the short timeline.

It wasn't until Nokia agreed to accompany us that we got into the same flight back to India. The bids were only finalised in February 1995. Within nine months, the network was in place thanks to Nokia.

We started with 11 BTS sites in the prime locations of the central business district of Kolkata.

The plan was that, after expansion, we could cater to one million subscribers. The network cost was over $500 per subscriber as compared to 10 per cent of that today.

At that time, having a mobile phone or making a call was a luxury. The choice of mobile phones was extremely limited. You had Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson and they were on offer at a steep price of Rs 40,000 plus.

Mobile call charges were also astronomical at Rs 8.40 per minute for both outgoing and incoming calls (there was no calling party pay regime) and peak rates would hit Rs 16.80 per minute.

Well, we kept the deadline, despite the many challenges in a new business. The state government was supportive at the top level but down the line, procedural clearances and lack of understanding of the technical issues of a completely new business were obvious constraints. Getting clearance for setting up towers, for example, was an almost insurmountable obstacle.

However, it is heartening to note that the same spirit that established India’s first mobile network became the very foundation of the telecom industry. It is a matter of pride for the country that digital systems developed in India during these last 25 years have been a source of inspiration for several countries around the world.

As we face uncertain and challenging times, the role of the mobile ecosystem will become even more pivotal in effectively dealing with the pandemic outbreak.

Covid-19 has changed everything, disrupting business as usual and forcing organizations across industries to navigate a new landscape. Overnight, most of us became reliant on mobile connectivity to stay connected. Digital connectivity has ensured that we stay safe, make a living, and take the country ahead in its dream of Atmanirbhar Bharat.

As we work through the effects of the pandemic together, it is incredible to see telecommunications enabling our people and businesses to be agile and maintaining business continuity. I am certain the industry will play a game-changing role in mitigating the impact of this pandemic.

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