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