Phone aaya, phone aaya! – Part 3: I am mobile and I am here to stay! (mid-1990s – mid 2000s)

It’s said necessity is the mother of invention. Mobile phone technology took off early in Finland and part of it was due to necessity and rest of it due to spirit of invention and enterprise. The terrain in that country made it difficult and more expensive to lay cable/lines under the ground. The solution: Cellphones with the cell towers above ground! Gave rise to innovative handset makers like Nokia in Finland, Ericsson in Sweden and other companies specializing in mobile switching center technologies. The mobile wave made its way to India in the mid-1990s. Circa 1995 when I was supporting databases I was assigned to a project with one of the earliest service providers of mobile telephone services in a major metropolis in India. At this time the Government was handing over licenses to at least 2 service providers in every market to ensure competition and prevent monopoly. The project I was working on was interesting. Involved one Baby Bell, one Europe based company doing mobile switching center work, one British company responsible for billing software. The back end of the billing software used the DB my company was supporting at that time and I did a bit of development work and provided DB support for the billing system. That was my exposure to mobile telephony and standards like GSM. I used to pull leg of one of the English consultants who was on site by saying “When you stop inventing products, you start inventing standards” or trash talking English cricket. Nothing more fun than needling those stiff upper lip Brits, right? πŸ˜€ It was all in good humor, nothing more to it πŸ™‚ What struck me most was how expensive it was to use a mobile phone at that time. Apart from cost of the handset which in itself was quite expensive the calling rates were ridiculously high. It was equivalent of 35 cents/minute during peak hours (8am-6pm on weekdays), 18 cents/minute during off-peak hours (6pm-8am on weekdays) and ~ 9 cents/minutes during weekends. India and the USA were probably the only countries that were charging customers for incoming calls too 😦 The coverage was spotty too as the infrastructure was being built and not quite ready yet for prime time yet. I used to wonder how it would ever take off in India. What I had not thought about were 2 things: #1 – The strength in numbers which resulted in fast adoption rate and the calling rate/minute going down as well with companies eager to gain new customers and #2 – The fact that countries that had not buried (literally πŸ™‚ ) lot of money in landlines could leapfrog other advanced countries that were a lot more invested and trying to recover that money. Sometimes it is easier to leap straight when the technology and industry is more mature obviating the need to go through multiple iterations. Initially it was a bit of status symbol to carry a mobile handset, it was just a matter of few months before it was a common sight. As the calendar turned from 1996 and 1997 and The Raj traveled to the Golden City of the Golden State in the US for work it wasn’t unusual to see folks in India calling friends and family from just outside their building to avoid climbing couple flight of stairs πŸ˜€
Meanwhile, in the USA, the Baby Bells and other upstarts were duking it out for customer $ in the landline business even as mobile service providers were angling for a bigger piece of the pie. Calling card companies were probably leasing/renting some excess capacity from established operators to offer calling services at competitive rates. What about the voice quality of mobile phones and calling cards? Initially not very good and it was like robbing Peter (landline service providers) to pay Paul (remember “Can you hear me now?”. Imagine a caller asking that to the person being called πŸ˜€ ) as the technology was still developing and mobile service providers were expanding their network to improve coverage. I also remember carrying pager for on-call support at times. I have almost forgotten how those things worked. It was like a love-hate relationship with those pesky little things. You always want to be alerted when something breaks and needs immediate attention (those batch jobs running at night always find a way to break, don’t they? πŸ™‚ ) but also pray that thingy never rings. The pagers were like nagging spouse who expects to do all the talking and expects one to hear silently πŸ˜‰ For a short while Palm Pilots were the in thing and many sales guys liked to show off their electronic rolodex by flashing out those devices and using the stylus to record or retrieve contact information. That gave way to Blackberry as accessing corporate Email securely by phone was getting necessary and convenient and texting with a full keyboard was increasing in popularity. By the mid-2000s mobile telephony reached everywhere and we were just getting started for the next wave: the advent of the iPhone!

Part 4: App-solutely yours!…To be continued

Author: Rajaram 'Raj' Gopalan

Hi All, Welcome to my home in cyberspace! You can call me Raj. Feel free to explore, discuss, comment and most importantly have a good time!

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