Indian mobile phones' scintillating silver jubilee

Image courtesy - Nicholas Debray, Pixabay

25 years ago, on 31st July 1995, the then Union Communications Minister Sukh Ram picked up his Nokia cell phone in New Delhi to speak to his peer, West Bengal’s Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. The latter was in Kolkata using a Nokia handset. This marked the country’s first cellular conversation over a GSM network, which interestingly was also built by Nokia!

This incident made great waves. It was a futuristic step at a time when people would make inter-city trunk calls on their landlines. Few owned cell phones; and for good reason.

Back then, the cellular tariff was INR 16 a minute with charges being levied on incoming calls too. Prepaid SIM cards came at a princely rate ranging INR 2000 to INR 5000, when the per capita income was INR 28000.

A bulky, brick-shaped mobile handset could easily cost between INR 25,000 to INR 45,000, putting it out of the reach of the common man. And even after shelling out big bucks, the model options were limited.

Nokia was the market leader and Nokia 203 and Nokia 808 were amongst the bestselling models. The company soon came out with a range of phones that enabled people to listen to FM radio, which soon became highly popular.

A handset could easily cost between INR 25,000 to INR 45,000 during late 1990s.

Most handsets had limited features like text messaging, which is why they are often called dumb phones. Users often used their cell phones like an upgraded pager. After seeing the number flashing on their mono LCD display, they would disconnect the call and return it from a landline!

However, the presence of private players like BPL Mobile, Airtel, Orange (which became Hutchison Max and later Vodafone) and state-owned brands like BSNL and MTNL saw tariff rates reduce rapidly. Cell phones gradually lost their elitist status symbol to become more utilitarian.  

A BURGEONING MARKET

By 2000, India’s mobile subscriber base had touched five million. Today, the country is amongst the fastest growing mobility market globally, with a user base of 448.2 million.

Sony Ericsson's Walkman mobile range boasted a camera and superior music system of that era.One big game changer in India’s cellular journey was the entry of the CDMA network. In 2002, when GSM owned 80% of the nation’s 2G communications market, CDMA entered as an economically viable option. Reliance Networks, Tata Tele and Idea-BSNL were the leaders who adopted this second-generation telecommunications standard and offered it with their own handsets. It soon became popular in the hinterlands, where CDMA had better network connectivity than GSM.     

While Nokia and Motorola ruled the country’s handset market , Sony Ericsson soon played catch up. Its Walkman series, especially found favour with the youth. Later, brands like Samsung, Apple, LG and Huawei also made an entry into the country, giving customers more options.  

However, the high customs duty inflated their price tags, giving birth to a parallel industry – the grey market. Soon, India earned the sobriquet of the world’s largest grey market for mobile phones.

Around this time refurbished handsets started gaining ground. These fully functioning mobile phones mobiles were minimally used, came with warranty support and cost almost 50% of the original price. Today, as newer smartphone models flood the market on a monthly basis, people are increasingly opting for the refurbished handsets from well-known sources like ShopClues. It gives them an opportunity to own the latest device at lower costs.

Today, one can’t imagine life without their mobile phone. It is the first thing most people reach for upon waking up and the last thing they put down before sleeping.

With 5G likely to become the new normal, who would have thought that there was a time when 2G was the epitome of speed. It just goes to prove that when it comes to the mobile world, change is the only constant.

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