The hum­bling saga of land­line Nos­tal­gic look at trans­for­ma­tion of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy

Pakistan Observer - - ECONOMY WATCH - REHAN JAN

NEARLY 140 years af­ter Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell made the first tele­phone call, the land­line once con­sid­ered the high­point of voice com­mu­ni­ca­tion, now seems to have been rel­e­gated to al­most to­tal obliv­ion. Smart­phones and wire­less broad­band seem to have usurped the throne once held by their aged pre­de­ces­sor, point­ing the way to­wards a wire­less fu­ture. Yet, it is heart­en­ing to note that de­spite the ex­is­tence of cell phones, wire­less broad­band and now VoiceOver-In­ter­net-Pro­to­col (VoIP), the wired line still serves as the foun­da­tion on which th­ese new ser­vices have been built on. For the greater part of the last cen­tury, th­ese tele­phone lines have formed the ba­sis on which Pak­istan’s en­tire com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work has been built upon. Many re­mem­ber the by­gone days of those bulky, brightly coloured tele­phone sets with ro­tary di­alling mech­a­nisms and loud me­tal ringers. Th­ese sets were com­mon­place in nearly ev­ery Pak­istani house­hold and work­place dur­ing a time when it was ana­logue rather than dig­i­tal that reigned supreme.

This was also a time when di­alling 0 led to one be­ing con­nected to an ac­tual op­er­a­tor at the PTCL ex­change. Many will still re­mem­ber the po­lite wran­gling that en­sued when try­ing to reach some­one across the bor­der through the ex­pen­sive luxury of an international call; a far­cry from the con­ve­nience of to­day’s snap-chat or video calls. It is truly heart­en­ing to note the mas­sive progress hu­man civ­i­liza­tion has made in mere decades when it comes to im­prov­ing con­nec­tiv­ity across the globe. One has to look back at only two gen­er­a­tions to re­al­ize what a dif­fer­ent world we live in from our just the re­cent past. PTCL’s jour­ney from the Posts and Tele­graph Depart­ment (1947) to the Pak­istan Tele­phone and Tele­graph Depart­ment (1962) em­bod­ies the tran­si­tion of a young coun­try full of prom­ise, rapidly adapt­ing to a chang­ing world.

Keep­ing aside the tu­mul­tuous pol­i­tics of that era, this was a time when tech­nol­ogy played a highly im­por­tant role in trans­form­ing the world’s so­cio-cul­tural land­scape. The ef­fects of such a tran­si­tion in Pak­istan were no dif­fer­ent with cities and later ru­ral ar­eas be­com­ing in­creas­ingly con­nected as part of the coun­try’s at­tempts at mod­ern­iza­tion. This was when even the pres­ence of a sin­gle tele­phone line lit­er­ally meant the world for en­tire com­mu­ni­ties in re­mote vil­lages. Whereas, to­day we have a mul­ti­tude of cell com­pa­nies vy­ing for wire­less in­ter­net con­sumers, this was a time when tele­phone con­nec­tiv­ity was fast chang­ing into a ne­ces­sity rather than a luxury. This was also a time when the line­man reigned supreme in en­sur­ing that one stayed con­nected to a fast ex­pand­ing net­work. It was un­der such cir­cum­stances that the Pak­istan Tele­phone and Tele­graph depart­ment meta­mor­phosed first into the Pak­istan Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Cor­po­ra­tion (1991), and then into Pak­istan Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­pany Ltd [PTCL] (1996). This was an era when ‘Dig­i­tal’ was be­ing touted as the fu­ture, with in­ter­net and mo­bile com­mu­ni­ca­tion just com­ing into the coun­try. Many would re­mem­ber the pi­o­neer­ing ser­vices of Pak­tel, In­staphone and Cy­ber Net dur­ing a time when the in­ter­net was fast be­com­ing a ne­ces­sity. The tran­si­tion from early di­alup con­nec­tions to DSL broad­band was also pi­o­neered by PTCL dur­ing this phase, en­sur­ing that the same cov­er­age was ap­plied to the in­ter­net as well. This too was first es­tab­lished on the coun­try’s ex­ist­ing wired net­work. While evolv­ing with the times, it still served as the back­bone of the coun­try’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work.

It was thus the mid 90s that saw the dawn­ing of Pak­istan’s ‘Dig­i­tal Age’ prompt­ing the be­gin­ning of the coun­try’s ‘Wire­less Rev­o­lu­tion’. With nu­mer­ous cell phone tow­ers crop­ping up through­out the coun­try it was here that this decade-old line net­work qui­etly re­ceded into the back­ground, let­ting its wire­less off­shoot lead from the front. It was also at this junc­ture that the way we as Pak­ista­nis are teth­ered to each other was com­pletely trans­formed, lead­ing to a whole new par­a­digm. Soon, with the ad­vent of eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble high­speed in­ter­net, the coun­try could be said to have fully joined the In­for­ma­tion Age. This is per­haps the most defin­ing fea­ture of our world to­day.

With pic­tures, videos, emoti­cons and hash­tags dom­i­nat­ing how we now com­mu­ni­cate, it is truly hum­bling to think back of a time when a phone call it­self was the pin­na­cle of reach­ing out to some­one over a dis­tance. It is now in­ter­net ac­cess and that too re­li­able and speedy ac­cess which has be­come a ne­ces­sity for con­sumers and busi­nesses ev­ery­where. The pop­u­lar­ity of 3G/4G ser­vices on palm-sized de­vices are in it­self a tech­no­log­i­cal won­der when placed along­side those bulky ro­tary head­sets. Yet, with all the con­ve­nience and shiny new wiz­ardry of the lat­est tech­nol­ogy, it is worth not­ing that it would all be base­less with­out that un­der­ly­ing frame­work that serves as the back­bone for the coun­try’s telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. De­spite its age, and per­ceived ir­rel­e­vance, it is Pak­istan’s land­line net­work still run by PTCL that still serves as the raw, nuts and bolts foun­da­tion on which this new par­a­digm is built upon.

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