Published on December 28th, 2009 | by Babar Bhatti5
A Historical View of Pakistan Telecom Industry and Its Impact on Pakistan Culture
Taimur Sikander has written an interesting article for Dawn about the long way that telecom has come in Pakistan and the impact of mobile phones and telecommunication on Pakistan society. I particularly like how he provides snapshots of the early days, and the way politics, arts and culture were shaped by telecom. It talks about Nazia Hassan’s hit song, ‘Telephone pyaar’ which was one of the first pop songs in Urdu about phones. Excerpts follow.
At the time of independence, Pakistan inherited a meagre 14,000 land lines. Now, there are over 94 million mobile phone connections in the country. The huge growth in Pakistan’s telecom sector is characteristic of many developing countries. But there are few other places where phone calls and connections have had such an impact on a nation’s foreign policy, crime, pop culture, entrepreneurship, and more.
For a perspective on the telephone infrastructure and systems that Pakistan inherited from the British colonial days, the article quotes Mohammad Sharfuddin, a former assistant director of the Pakistan Telecommunications Limited (PTCL) who remained with the company for 37 years.
The telecom base put in place by the British Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Department (later to become the Pakistan Telegraph and Telephone Department or the T&T) was primarily meant to serve the administrative setup of the country. “The colonial infrastructure, although limited, was there. It was efficient and just needed expansion step by step,” explains Mohammad Sharfuddin.
He recalls that when he came to Pakistan in 1949, Karachi, then capital of the country, had five telephone exchanges in operation: the Cantt Exchange, the Garden Exchange, the Central Exchange on Bolton Road, the Trunk Exchange on I.I Chundrigar Road, and the Park Capital Exchange at Sabzi Mandi. “All had a 1,100-1,200 line capacity and you could get a set and connection for about Rs. 179,” he recalls.
The government had quotas for certain sectors and professions, such as hospitals, police and fire stations, parliamentarians etc. During the 1970s, the government had sanctioned two phones per senator to be given to people in their constituencies. “This, however, was useless as the senators started selling these lines to whoever was willing to pay more for them,” explains I. H Burney, a veteran journalist. “[A phone connection] was a scarce commodity. When the wave of socialism swept through in the seventies and everything was nationalised, things really stalled. As far as the telecom sector was concerned, service, quality and availability were pretty scarce.”
The 1980s saw heavy capital investment to develop the telephone sector, which eventually resulted in the formation of Pakistan Telecommunication Corporation Limited (PTCL) and the introduction of cellular mobile services in the 1990s, albeit for only a limited period. It was the first major stride that culminated, during the last decade, in one of the biggest telecom booms in the world.
And some scary stuff is mentioned as well!
But all was not fun and games as far as phones were concerned. In 1991, Instaphone, a subsidiary of Millicom International Cellular based in Luxembourg, started the first mobile phone service in Pakistan. The huge mobile phone sets that came with the service were outlandish, a status symbol that only the wealthy could afford. But this luxury was to soon be the undoing of many wealthy businessmen who were kidnapped for ransom in droves. The police soon determined that the kidnappers, armed with the new phone technology themselves, could track and pinpoint the location of high-value targets as well as use mobile technology to better coordinate the pick-ups. As a result of the spikes in kidnappings, the mobile phone service was phased out by the government of Pakistan in the mid-1990s, though, sadly, kidnappings for ransom remained a constant.
When Pakistan lost the World Cup cricket quarter final to India in Bangalore, our players received innumerable death threats – all via their phones.