|Cheap mobile telephony has pushed once popular STD and PCO booths into oblivion
India’s telecom revolution began sometime in the middle of 1980s. The most visible sign of this revolution was the proliferation of the yellow booths, the Public Call Office (PCO) for Subscriber Trunk Dialing (STD). You could make a local or long distance call from these STD booths.
You didn’t need to have a phone line at home. And the electronic meter was accurate and reliable. (Twenty years later, we are still struggling to get autorickshaws fitted with electronic meters.) The STD booth created thousands of jobs and entrepreneurs. The country soon became dotted with these yellow booths and you got 24 hours reliable service, with a printed receipt.
Even foreign tourists knew from their guidebooks that STD (booths) had spread across India. By 1994 there were almost 2 lakh booths countrywide, which increased to a peak of 24 lakhs by 2006. But by then the mobile revolution took over. With the advent of inexpensive mobile telephony, the STD booths, at least in big cities started declining.
Now since everyone has a cellphone, the STD booths are in danger of becoming extinct. But wait. What if we transform them into a new business opportunity? With 3G and the possibility of making video calls, the STD booth may still survive and provide some residual business possibility.
Many ordinary folk will not switch to a 3G connection soon, and hence wouldn’t mind walking to a nearby STD booth for a quick video call. Think of the migrant worker, or students away from homes, in remote hostels.
Even in a city like Mumbai or Pune the spread of 3G is slow. Of course those of you with access to fast internet, already do video chatting with Skype or Google Talk. But for the majority of Indians internet access is spotty. Hence the STD booth could be their ticket to an internet experience.
Firstly, remember that “mobile” telephony is still 90% over a copper wire. The only wireless part is from your handset to the nearest cell tower. The rest of it is all wired, to the nearest telephone exchange, across the country. If it’s not copper wire it is optical fibre. Not wireless.
This is the way you get broadband. Through a wire, not wireless. Secondly, most Indians will have their first internet experience on their mobile phone, not on a computer. Thirdly, the prices of 3G handsets and smartphones are dropping rapidly (but not necessarily the tariff plans). With unaffordable tariffs, they may not embrace internet with just wireless.
Fourthly, due to bandwidth congestion, we have problems of call dropping. Hence cell companies have to use mobile towers to supplement bandwidth and cell capacity, especially during rush hour, or during a cricket match, and around a stadium. Imagine the congestion if all cricket fans started uploading images and videos in a T20 match with their 3G cellphones. (That probably did happen in Wimbledon.) So enter wi-fi.
This is the technology which allows you to browse the internet at broadband speed, but not by using 3G airwaves. It works only locally in a limited radius, and there’s no roaming. It can be free and password protected. So imagine if all the STD booths become wi-fi providers (i.e. hotspots, just as in Café Coffee Day, or at airports).
Internet access is considered an essential service like electricity, in countries like Canada. In many western cities, free wi-fi internet access is provided by the municipality. Many public libraries are free hotspots. So why can’t the BMC or PMC initiate a project, to partly subsidise the STD booth owners, and convert all of them into wi-fi centres?
They could also become e-seva kendras. The cities have budgets to proliferate CCTV cameras for security. The time has come to string the city with wi-fi hotspots too using the ubiquitous STD booths as hubs.
• Unsold flats or unused flats?
I am a regular reader of Ajit Ranade’s column. In his article ‘Those 80,000 unsold flats’, (PM, July 9) he has given an excellent comparison of perishable and nonperishable goods. Historically, the prices of land, homes and gold have always gone up. At the same time, the value of human life came down.
I think those are not merely unsold flats but 80,000 possible homes lying vacant. The available infrastructure can be utilised for the benefit of scores of homeless people . For that we need sensitivity, honesty and a strong political will. Also I would love to read Ranade’s views on literacy, environmental degradation and medical tourism.
- Lt Col Jayashree Baxi (Retd)