On this day, exactly 25 years ago, a telephone call was made. It changed the way we communicate forever and ushered in a communication revolution in India. What was different? It was the first time that a phone call was made using mobile phones – back then, massive large bricks with chunky number keys that look archaic today but way too sleek back in 1995.
The then-Union Telecom Minister Sukh Ram, and erstwhile Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, spoke to each other using handheld mobile phones on July 31, 1995. It was a first for India, where two of Nokia’s earliest mobile phones were used, and the network itself – a joint venture between India’s B.K. Modi Group and Australia’s Telstra, was primitive by today’s standards, but completely uncongested.
The call made in July 1995, between the Writer's Building in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Sanchar Bhavan in New Delhi, was carried over this Modi Telstra's MobileNet service. That cellular call inaugurated MobileNet services in Calcutta. The company was one of the eight companies licensed to provide cellular services in India. Two licences were awarded each for the four metropolitan cities.
Interestingly, reports state that back then, the initial phone call rates ranged from Rs 8.4 per minute for both outgoing and incoming calls, and in peak mobile phone traffic hours, the cost also went up to Rs 16.8 per minute. For the Modi-Telstra JV network operator, which later became Spice, simply establishing the network itself was a massive cost even after they estimated that their services would reach at least 10 lakh people in the near future, soon after premiering in 1995.
The phones themselves weren’t affordable, either – they would cost upward of Rs 40,000, which after adding 25 years of inflation, is worth over Rs 2 lakh in today’s valuation. While it is not known exactly which mobile phones were used in India’s first ever mobile phone call, they may have been something like the security-focused Nokia 2080, or the mainstream oriented Nokia 350, or for that time, the cutting edge Nokia 880 sleek and rugged mobile phone. It had cutting edge features such as a snap-on, vibrating battery to give you silent call alerts, the ability to read three lines of text at one time to read the then-latest SMS service, and a ‘user friendly keypad’.
Telecommunications in India has come a long way since 1995. Today, just in the wireless mobile telephony market, India has around 450 million users of ‘feature phones’ – a term for non-internet-enabled mobile phones, and close to 400 million users of ‘smartphones’ – swanky sheets of glass that puts the world at your feet. Our telephony costs are next to a fraction of what it was back then – calling comes for free, while data costs less than Rs 4 per gigabyte.
While the question back then was giving one million people in India mobile devices to remain connected through, today, India’s challenge is ‘the next billion’ – an aim to bring India’s massive population online, not just through mobile telephony, but with the interconnectivity of the internet.
Editors' Note: This article is part of the 25 Years of Internet In India series, where try to capture how the state of mobile services, home broadband, services and content have evolved, particularly in the past few years. We try to understand what the internet means for us, be it for the new reality of work from home, for entertainment including all the Netflix binge watching, music streaming, online gaming and more.