From immobile phones to number portability

Freedom comes in many hues, and for many of us, the word immediately makes us hum the George Michael 1984 song Freedom, which became the #1 hit by the British group Wham! It had lyrics that ran:

“I won’t let you down

I will not give you up

Gotta have some faith in the sound

It’s the one good thing that I’ve got

I won’t let you down

So please don’t give me up

Because I would really, really love to stick around.”

Remember the 1980s? It was still the time of landlines and in most Indian cities, the phone numbers were three to four digits, and if you thought of the big black phones and uncertain communications, the lyrics of the song seem to fit in rather well.

 Phones then.... and now. Cartoon by Sandeep Joshi

In the telecommunication sector, there have been many significant landmarks even as consumers were liberated from the stranglehold of an octopus-like telecommunications department. Often, a look at history gives a better perspective to divining future.

Many readers will remember the days of the telephone, that black box which was literally the lifeline for the whole neighbourhood. The first flush of independence that many homes had was just getting a landline in the house, after an inordinately wait or through the good offices of a friendly politician like an MP or a Minister. No longer would you have to go to the neighbour’s house to attend to your phone call, you could say what you wanted in the privacy of your own home, without that annoying and pesky Auntiji listening to the conversation.

You had to be an Indian to understand why someone would get excited because he got an STD. Instead of a trip to the doctors, as was the case the world over, in India you celebrated when you got the Subscriber Trunk Dialling  facility. Of course, it was not simple, you went to the telephone exchange, filled in many forms, took in much official nakhra, and then had your form accepted.

When you got STD, you were liberated from booking trunk calls. Invariably, you booked an ‘urgent’ call and still waited the whole day for it to mature, unless it was an emergency and you made a ‘lightning’ call, at many times the cost of an ‘ordinary” call.

The ubiquitous ‘lineman’ kept you connected to the world beyond, and for this he demanded his pound of flesh, much as any Shylock would. You had to keep him happy, and pray that he did not do some jiggery-pokery that resulted in your paying the bills of someone else’s call. Of course, this was seen as an opportunity for some who got access to many ‘free’ calls at others’ expense.

For those unable to get the landlines, there came the STD Booths. No, they did not have any penicillin handy, they allowed ordinary millions to make phone calls, and so pleased were the voters that they even rewarded the Minister concerned by re-electing him, even after the CBI found that he found comfort in beds lined with currency notes.

So continued the merry dance, till came a new kid on the block. It was the cell phone, introduced in India in August 1995. This was an electronic gadget that you could use conveniently to drive a nail with, and one in which you paid as much as Rs 8 a minute to listen to a call. God help you some voluble called! People took to it like a duck to water, and so much so that the world was amazed at and the telecommunication pool became bigger and still bigger as more and more ducks started swimming in it.

What the cell phone meant at that time was freedom from the tyranny of the tangle of landlines. A flawed, sometimes dysfunctional, and often cacophonic freedom is infinitely better than being tied down, as we Indians especially know.

In time cell phones got better, they could actually be carried in your pocket instead of belt holsters originally associated with that wonderful weapon that tamed the Wild West: Colt 45.

The telecom players became better, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India showed such teeth that even the Time magazine commented on its functioning. Of course, this was too good to last, but even as various shenanigans kept the telecom players, ministers and officials busy, the Indian consumer continued to enjoy among the lowest rates in the world.

Cell phones proliferated to such an extent and became so common that much to the photographers’ despair, pictures of rickshaw walas, sabzi walas, labourers, sadhus and what have you using cell phones ceased to be exotic.

Our self-worth was determined by the model of the cell phone we used. Services were added at a bewildering rate. Our musical choices were pandered to and we could load ring tones by the thousands, with nary a thought to those who would have to inadvertently listen to them.

The technical side of this revolution was that we became among the world leaders and Indian companies started looking for opportunities abroad. Many practises adopted by Indian companies are looked upon as best practises.

One thing that was certainly not looked at was the way the spectrum was auctioned, so much so that now forever the words ‘3G’ and ‘scam’ come together. The Minister who is no longer there and his cohorts did not follow norms and have already been convicted in the court of public opinion, even as the Supreme Court and other bodies debate on legal issues.

3G will bring in much greater connectivity and will allow the phone to become a smart device, a computer, actually. In fact, the tech world has already started classifying smart phones as computers. Given the configuration of these phones, they are computers!

Now that number portability is a reality, we will be able to enjoy the benefits of better services, and at more competitive rates. Not everyone will change their numbers, but people can, if they want to do so. It’s all about making a choice. We like to choose because doing so affirms our fundamental belief that we are independent entities, that we have the ability to make choices.

Remember, to retain the land line under DOT rules, you had to pay a ‘deposit’ of Rs 10,000 so that your phone could be ‘suspended’ till you needed the number again. Now you have to pay Rs 19 to keep your phone number even as you change your service provider.

The empowerment of number portability, of choosing your phone service provider without giving up your phone number, is all about giving choice to the consumers. Whether they exercise it or not is their prerogative.

A shorter version of this article was published in The Tribune on January 24, 2011.

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