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From waiting months for a landline to pre-ordering iPhone

My quest to spot a snow leopard took me to Ulley Village, 4,300 metres above sea level and deep in the Ladakh Range. I spent three nights in 2019 at the Snow Leopard Village in Ulley, home to about 40 residents and one phone. This is the only two-way connection to the external world and each of us in our group was allowed one phone call a day. Six homesteads share this phone, the home with the phone is almost like a congregation spot for the village.

From all the accounts got I’ve from my maternal grandfather who used to work for ITI (Indian Telephone Industries) in Bengaluru, this was the scene in many of India’s big cities in the 1980s, before the private PCO (Gen Z digital natives might need to Google this) became a thing.

Flip to the 2020s and India’s pandemic response where 78 percent of Indian organisations (according to a Microsoft-IDC study in 2020) accelerated the pace of digitalisation in response to the crisis.

Imagine a scenario like the first lockdowns of 2020 without smartphone connectivity, digital wallets, WFH connectivity and a plethora of apps that helped us stay connected and collaborate remotely. India’s journey as a digital-first nation runs parallel with the explosive growth of smartphones through the 2010s. But the seeds were sown in the 20th century.

The call that started it all
Former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu made the first ever call via a Nokia mobile phone in India on July 31, 1995, to Sukh Ram, the then Union communications minister.

A lot has been said and written about Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of a digital India and Sam Pitroda’s role in India’s initial journey.

In March 1999, the New Telecom Policy shared facts about India’s telecom sector, revealing that the tele-density had grown from 0.6 percent to 2.8 percent in 1999. At this point, India had just crossed 1 million mobile subscribers. Back then, users paid close to Rs 20 per minute and also had to pay for incoming calls; average monthly bills were around Rs 2,000 – 3,000.

It’s certainly nowhere in the league of India’s connectivity numbers in the 2010s. For instance, India’s internet users grew from 100 million in 2010 to 400 million by 2015 (Source: Internet and Mobile Association of India.)

The BSNL move
Professor Arvind Panagariya from Columbia University believes that it was the key policy reforms implemented by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1999 that fuelled India’s telecom boom. In his book, India – The Emerging Giant, Panagariya credits the separation between policy formulation and service provision that eventually led to the birth of BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd) in 2000. The government took the politically challenging step of corporatizing BSNL and freeing the telecom sector from political interference.

Blackberry and the upwardly mobile
I remember my first Blackberry – the Blackberry Bold, that went on sale in 2008 at an asking price of close to Rs 35,000. It quickly became the attention stopper at an airline lounge or meeting room. It was the first mobile device that unchained a whole generation of Indian corporate executives and entrepreneurs from the desktop.

A year later, HTC unveiled the first Android phone along with Airtel, with a ‘generous’ 100MB pack. It took slightly longer for Android phones and then the iPhone to hit critical mass and become the convergence devices of today.

The digital equivalent of America’s Interstate highway system from the 1950s
The Federal Highway Act of 1956 in the US envisioned the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways that would span the nation. It transformed the country in the same way that India’s mobile connectivity has altered India’s connectivity landscape.

Most Indians leapfrogged multiple products – from cameras to gaming devices and now credit cards (thanks to digital payment wallets). Many of our first experiences have been on our smartphones.

Some of the Indian government’s flagship programs like Digital India and Skill India depend on smartphone connectivity.

The advent of Reliance Jio in 2016 was a turning point in India’s smartphone journey. It expanded the width and depth of India’s smartphone users as rivals like Airtel and Vodafone also dropped prices and offered 4G connectivity with some of the lowest tariffs in the world.

The (5G) road ahead
According to a recent report by Deloitte, the telecom sector reforms of 2021 will further consolidate India’s status as one of the most significant smartphone markets in the world along with China. Deloitte expects India to hit the historic mark of 1 billion smartphone users by 2026. The report forecasts that the cumulative shipments of smartphones in the country are expected to reach 1.7 billion units from 2022 to 2026, creating a market of about US$250 billion. 5G devices alone are expected to contribute 80 percent (about 310 million devices) to smartphone demand by 2026, according to this report.

At a time when we pre-order the latest Samsung flagships and iPhones, and use our smartphone for everything from clicking photographs to playing music to making digital payments and ordering a bag of chips on impulse, it’s impossible to visualise the connectivity of the first 50 years of India. A time when Indians had to wait for years for a landline connection. India’s smartphone revolution is also a great example of the innovation and aggressiveness of private telecom players who built on the government’s foresight. With 5G just around the corner, things can only get better. Moneyontrol

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