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.

Sam Pitroda: An Interview

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

"We need to redesign the nation"


Sam Pitroda has advised more than half a dozen prime ministers of India over the last three decades regarding technology applications and policy. Shivanand Kanavi captures the highlights of this rich experience in a conversation.

How did your engagement with government of India as a technology advisor start nearly thirty years ago?

In the early 80`s computers were just becoming more and more viable in terms of desktop, that was the time Rajiv Gandhi came into the mainstream of politics as a young MP in India. He was visionary and was himself technology savvy. He saw that computers could play very imp role. I had background in telecom, IT, and software in the US and I was also young and because of my background in telecom, I decided to look at telecom as an instrument of change in nation building. 

How did C-DOT come along?

Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi gave me an opportunity to set up C-DOT (Center for Development of Telematics) to develop indigenous technology for India’s effort to digitize networks. Then we had electro-mechanicals [switches]. However we were going digital so we needed products, and one idea was to get products and technologies from MNCs like Alcatel and another approach was to develop indigenously using Indian talent  to meet Indian needs like rural telephony, smaller exchange that can withstand Indian climate; dust; high temp and all of that, so my entry into India was to essentially focus on digital networks, develop rural telecom through C-DOT.

Were you not part of the “computer boys” of Rajiv Gandhi’s era?

Collectively we all felt computers have a role to play not only in telecom but also in other areas and if we really want people to see the benefits of IT then we need to apply it quickly in areas where average Indian could see the advantage. Otherwise they would all say, look this is all fancy stuff only for the rich, urban, elite etc. Many used to say ‘what does this guy know about rural areas? Rural India is very different’. People used to tell me you should work on agriculture, drinking water and sanitation. I used to say ‘you are right, but I don’t know anything about it. You need to find an agriculture or a water expert. I happen to know about IT & telecom so I can only work on it, my knowledge is limited, but there are so many other things going on in the world like biotech, nanotech I don’t know anything about it so I have to focus on what I know and someone else has to focus on other areas’.

How did the idea of computerisation of Indian railways’ passenger reservation system, which celebrates s Silver Jubilee this year, originate? That actually changed people’s perceptions on the ground.

Rajiv was convinced that technology can be an instrument of change. We said we must look for area which affects large number of people. Many people wait at the railway stations e.g. a person is waiting at the railway station window no 6 to get a ticket to Nagpur and you get all the way up to the line and when you say you want a ticket to Nagpur you are told that you have to go to window no 7 and so you have to start all over again. The hassle of getting railway ticket, going to station for booking it etc all that was a painful experience for every citizen. So we thought how about using this for railway reservation.

Problem however were the unions. They were going to be against it as the general impression was that computers take away jobs and that automation is not good. ‘Automation is for the west not for India and India should not automate anything. We should focus on labour intensive technology. We have more people we need to create more jobs so manual is the only way to do it’.

How did you overcome the resistance to the idea?

Unions reacted saying ‘no way’ we will allow this to happen. We started dialogue with unions saying this is important in the long-run and in passengers’ interest. In one of the conversations somebody figured out that if we put computers we would need to have Air-Conditioned rooms so people will benefit from the better work conditions and environments. So we said let’s try it in some place and create a POC (Proof Of Concept). We told the board, ‘give us a slot to try and if you are not happy, unions are not happy then we will revisit’. So people agreed that we should try. Dr P P Gupta the then CMD of CMC was very happy. He was given the mandate to prove the concept. CMC was seen as a new organization; dynamic and innovative. We had the talent in CMC to do this kind of things. After a lot of effort, when we showed the unions that it can work, then we saw change.

In India  at that point in time we also didn’t have the capabilities, if there had been RFPs then they would have surely gone to the IBMs of the world but then the mood was ‘indigenous development’. When proved the concept, people saw it and said consumer would substantially benefit from it as they won’t have to go through the hassle, but then the challenge was how we did it. Even today revenue-wise freight is more important, but we wanted to look at benefit for consumer because then the acceptance for computers overall at a national level would be better, so in a sense it was a railway project but it was more than that. It was a project to prove to all stakeholders; our consumers in many fields and unions in many fields that automation is not bad. Computers are not bad. They will upgrade the jobs. Now your people will work in AC. All those things were critical.

What about wider adoption of IT in the railway operations?

That’s how the CRIS (Centre for Railway Information Systems) was born. Besides reservation there are lots of other things but it took 20yrs for people to embrace this whole idea in a big way. Reservation and ticketing was an instant success. People thought it was a miracle and I would say this was the first grand success for IT in India. By then C-DOT was rolling and exchanges and telecom modernisation were seen as the important.

Going back to the railways story, don’t you think we could use technology to make them safer?

In the Indian Railways, we have huge possibility to use IT for travelling, traffic billing, we have built the highway we want satellite based or GSM based real time monitoring anti-collision device etc. All of that it is very simple. Indian Railway has 40,000 kms of its own optical fibre they are trying to put another 10000 so IT is becoming important in railways in traffic building. Many people die at railway crossings everywhere. We could give the person manning it this little device, which listens to the train coming in and gives an alarm signal that train coming so get off the track. Technology should be used to prevent such deaths. Very soon many technology initiatives of Indian railways are going to be announced.

There were also other technology missions….

Yes more technology missions came in where we could take technology to address the routine problems of people related to water, literacy, immunization, edible oil, and telecom. These were the 5 missions to which we added dairy development as the 6th mission. Then we started changing the mindsets. That was a big accomplishment in a country of then 800 million people-to convince people that technology is something that is positive. Technology is not bad it is not urban, exotic, fancy. To me in those 5 years this was the main accomplishment and it will benefit our young.

What are your current preoccupations?

Today we are nation of connected millions, unfortunately people don’t quiet appreciate this big revolution that has happened in the history of India. So far we were a nation of unconnected millions, now we are all connected in some fashion. You can reach Kashmir, Mizoram, Kanya Kumari just like that. So what does it mean for a nation going forward? How do you redesign the strategies  based on connectivity for development? Should we go around doing the same thing that we have done in the past and not notice the fact that we are a nation of a billion connected now? Something huge happened in last decade let’s sit back and take advantage of it. How do we do everything we do today, differently? I think that’s the main challenge how do we examine governance, public services.

So what it means is that now we need to redesign the nation, if I may use that word. How do we get birth certificate, how do we get land record, how we can file a police report. Today when I file a police report in kerala somebody in Maharashtra can’t read it due to different format, different column, and names do we standardize that so that when a police report is filed in Kerala  it is available in Maharashtra i.e. anybody in Maharashtra can read it and can we do it online because we are connected? Everything we do has to be rethought.

In a sense everything we do today is obsolete; people say we don’t have enough professors, with connectivity we can take a great professor from IIT Kharagpur and broadcast to 2000 colleges. All of that is possible now, distance learning, e-governance all of this can be a reality.  Can we provide for video conferencing so that people don’t have to travel hours for a 5 mins meeting? What we are doing now, could have been done on Skype. So we can avoid you travelling for an hour and half to reach this place to see me. All of these things are possible but this will take time to change the mindset of people. I was once telling PM, “a lot of people come to see you. You could schedule a 10 min interview with a person in Kerala that individual gets up in the morning takes a flight goes to PM’s house where 15 people are waiting he is always hassled it’s going to be 7:30 then 7:45 then you meet for 5 mins and he says “Sir ye problem hai”( Sir, such and such is a problem).. Poor guy has lost whole day so much petrol so much time... you could do the same on video conferencing”.

So going back to the original thought we are nation of connected million and we need to do things differently we need to use cameras, videos, scanning to reduce travel you know to manage our cities better. We cannot manage our cities the way we have been managing. For example, today everybody is focused on urbanisation but their idea is Mumbai has 18 million people and it will become 26 million in........ But we don’t want extrapolation. We need restructuring. How will I use GIS (Geographical Information System) to make Mumbai better. How to use scanners to make Mumbai secure? We really need to make our cities smarter. Come up with different ideas how we improve our slums.

Where is the resistance now?

The government in a sense is not technology friendly. There are young individuals like Jayaram Ramesh’s of the world, who are tech savvy, but there are secretaries in IT who don’t use computers. The Department of Electronics uses manual files to make decisions; they should computerize their files, how many people in Department of Electronics use computers to make decisions. They are taking decisions on technology but they are using manual files. But that’s the system we have. You never see people in Indian government taking notes on a laptop, how many ministers know how to use laptops. You have to be connected you have to be able to read your e-mails, you can’t write or call your secretary and say “dictate karta hoon note likho” (will dictate a letter note it down) and then mail it and then wait for the reply. Those days are over, we are a connected people. We have built this nation in the last 20 years based on technology. Today if we have over $300 billion forex reserve it is only because of technology. IT has given us great deal of global recognition, lots of global companies of our own, lots of success stories, our advantage is we are in large numbers.