Tuesday 1 November 2011

Sam Pitroda: Telecom Revolution

This profile appeared in India Abroad, New York, Oct 21, 2011

Making of a Revolution
Sam and Indian Telecom

Shivanand Kanavi looks back at the ingenious ways in which Sam Pitroda connected billion Indians

Sun Microsystems, the famous Silicon Valley computer maker, of the ‘80s, used to have an ad line a few years ago, which said: “We are the dot in .com”. Obviously, the slogan was meant to advertise Sun’s role in Internet infrastructure. If one were to coin a similar slogan for C-DOT, then it would be: “C-DOT is the com in Indian telecom”.

Until the 1980s, Indian telecom was dominated entirely by electromechanical switches. This was one of the main reasons for bad telephone service. The Indian government was then looking at ways of modernising telecom. An obvious option was to import digital switches from the US, Japan or Europe. While this was the fastest route, there were primarily three drawbacks to it:

• India had meagre foreign exchange resources.

• The switches made by multinational companies were designed to handle a large number of lines (up to 100,000), and hence suited large cities. They did not have small switches that could handle about 100-200 lines, or the intermediate-range ones the country needed to spread telecom to small towns and large villages in India.

• It would have meant no incentive for indigenous R&D.

The question was, could India afford to spend enough money to develop its own switch and manufacture it at a competitive price? Even the most optimistic advocates of indigenous effort were sceptical, and they preferred to take the route of licensed production in agreement with a foreign multinational company. The CEO of a large multinational wrote to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, cautioning her that his company had invested more than a billion dollars in developing the technology, and implying that it would be foolhardy for India to attempt to re-invent the wheel with its limited resources.

That accepted wisdom needed challenging. And the person who could dare to do so was Sam Pitroda, a Chicago-based telecom engineer from Orissa, who had studied in the US and participated in the development and evolution of digital switching technology. Pitroda had over thirty patents in the technology while working at GTE and later at Rockwell.

As an entrepreneur, he had done very well for himself financially.

In the early 1980s, he heard from a friend that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had set up a high-level committee to look into the modernization of Indian telecommunications. He thought it was time he paid his dues to his country of origin. Having seen poverty and social discrimination in his childhood in his village, and now having become a participant in the worldwide IT revolution, Pitroda had no doubt that a modern telecom infrastructure would go a long way “in promoting openness, accessibility, accountability, connectivity, democracy, decentralisation—all the ‘soft’ qualities so essential to effective social, economic, and political development,” as he wrote later in the Harvard Business Review (Development Democracy, and the Village Telephone—Sam Pitroda, Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 1993).

Pitroda brought along with him his knowledge of technology, a ‘can do’ attitude and an impressive silvery mane he tossed while making a point, but not much else. He brought a breath of fresh air of optimism, aggression, confidence, flamboyance and media savvy into Indian telecom. He offered his services to the Indian government for one rupee a year.

And the offer was taken.

To recap the situation, in 1980, India had fewer than 2.5 million telephones, almost all of them in a handful of urban centres. In fact, seven per cent of the country’s urban population had fifty-five per cent of the nation’s telephones. The country had only twelve thousand public telephones for seven hundred million people, and ninety-seven per cent of India’s six hundred thousand villages had no telephones at all.

“India, like most of the Third World, was using its foreign exchange to buy the West’s abandoned technology and install obsolete equipment that doomed the poor to move like telecom snails where Europeans, Americans and Japanese were beginning to move like information greyhounds,” asserts Pitroda in his characteristic fashion. “The technological disparity was getting bigger, not smaller. India and countries like her were falling farther and farther behind not just in the ability to chat with relatives or call the doctor but, much more critically, in the capacity to coordinate development activities, pursue scientific study, conduct business, operate markets, and participate more fully in the international community. I was perfectly certain that no large country entirely lacking an indigenous electronics industry could hope to compete economically in the coming century. To survive, India had to bring telecommunications to its towns and villages; to thrive, it had to do it with Indian talent and Indian technology”, Pitroda added in his article.

Many discussions over three years, plus flying back and forth between New Delhi and Chicago, led to the establishment of C-DOT, the Centre for Development of Telematics. C-DOT was registered as a non-profit society funded by the government but enjoying complete autonomy. The Indian parliament agreed to allocate $36 million to C-DOT over 36 months to develop a digital switching system suited to the Indian network.

“We found five rooms in a rundown government hotel, and we went to work using beds as desks,” says Pitroda of those early days. “A few months later, in October 1984, Mrs Gandhi was assassinated, and her son Rajiv became prime minister. He and I decided that I should press ahead with the initiative for all it was worth.”

According to Pitroda, C-DOT engineers were conspicuously young, and they never seemed to sleep or rest. “C-DOT was much more than an engineering project. It did, of course, test the technical ability of our young engineers to design a whole family of digital switching systems and associated software suited to India’s peculiar conditions. But it was also an exercise in national self-assurance. Years earlier, India’s space and nuclear programmes had given the country pride in its scientific capability. Now C-DOT had the chance to resurrect that pride.”

By 1987, within the three-year limit, C-DOT had delivered a 128-line rural exchange, a 128-line private automatic branch exchange for businesses, a small central exchange with a capacity of 512 lines, and was working on a 10,000-line exchange. The components for all these exchanges were interchangeable for maximum flexibility in design, installation and repairs, and all of it was being manufactured in India to international standards—a guaranteed maximum of one hour’s downtime in twenty years of service! There was one problem; C-DOT had fallen short on one goal—the large urban exchange was behind schedule—but, overall, it had proved itself a colossal, resounding success.

What about the heat and dust in India and the need for air-conditioned rooms for digital switches? This was a serious issue for the country, large parts of which do not get a continuous supply of electricity. The solution was simple but ingenious. “First, to produce less heat, we used low-power microprocessors and other devices that made the exchanges work just slightly slower. Secondly, we spread out the circuitry to give it a little more opportunity to ‘breathe’. The cabinet had to be sealed against dust, of course, but by making the whole assembly a little larger than necessary, we created an opportunity for heat to rise internally to the cabinet cover and dissipate,” explains Pitroda.

The final product was a metal container about three feet by two feet by three feet, costing about $8,000, that required no air-conditioning and could be installed in a protected space somewhere in a village. It could switch phone calls more or less indefinitely in the heat and dust of an Indian summer as well as through the torrential Indian monsoon.

By November 2002, C-DOT switches equipped over 44,000 exchanges all over India. In the rural areas, ninety-one per cent of the telephone networks use C-DOT switches. Every village has not been covered yet, but we are getting there. Nationwide, 16 million lines, that is, forty per cent of the total operational lines in India, are covered by C-DOT switches.

Pitroda and Rajiv Gandhi also decided to open up the technology to the private sector. So C-DOT rapidly transferred the technology to over 680 manufacturers, who have supplied equipment worth Rs 7,230 crore and created 35,000 jobs in electronics. Seeing the ruggedness of these rural exchanges, many developing countries, such as Bhutan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ghana, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Nepal, Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda and Yemen decided to try them out.

For any institution, sustaining the initial zeal is hard once the immediate goals are achieved. After C-DOT’s goals were achieved, the Indian telecom sector has gone through, and is still going through, a regulatory and technological upheaval. But that has not deterred C-DOT’s engineers.

“It is creditable that through all this turbulence C-DOT has moved on to produce optical fibre transmission equipment, VSAT equipment, upgrading its switches to ISDN, intelligent networking, and even mobile switching technology. Today C-DOT may not be as high profile as it was in the 1980s, but it continues to provide essential hardware and software for Indian telecom despite intense competition from global vendors,” says Bishnu Pradhan, a telecom expert who was among C-DOT leaders between 1990 and 1996.


Before we move on to other parts of the communications revolution, let us note a characteristically Indian innovation not so much in technology as in management, which led to quantum leap in connectivity. That is the lowly public call office, or PCO, found at every street corner all over India today. These PCOs gave easy access to those who couldn’t afford telephones, and brought subscriber trunk dialing to millions of Indians.

Public call offices are a part of any network anywhere in the world, so what is innovative about India’s PCOs? The innovation lies in privately managed PCOs. As a result, we have over 600,000 small entrepreneurs running these booths and the telecom companies’ income from long distance telephony has multiplied manifold.

The innovation also lies in realising that Indian society is essentially frugal in nature, and is amenable to sharing resources. What Pitroda did was to translate the Indian village and small town experience of sharing newspapers into the telecommunications scenario.


Rahul said...

At last UPA thought of doing something sensible. Hope he gets consensus from all parties. And i really expect him to rise himself to the level of great abdul qalam sahab n not remains a rubber stamp. He is educated n knows whats happening in the world. He can really contribute to the Indian society specially in education sector where we r legging behind n need to do lot of work.

Vishwanath said...

An informative blog indeed. However, the governments came after the Rajiv Gandhi regime have not utilized the great talent of Sam Pitroda.

Manjunath Pai said...

Sam Pitroda has already done what a good Indian can do for India. Why expect more ?