Reviewed by Anand Parthasarathy
“Wireless: The latest telecom story” (National Book Trust, New Delhi; paperback; 7th edition 2022; Rs 345. Email for ordering)
October 2 2022:The semaphore, a form of signaling using shuttered lamps, was first tried out in England in 1795. By 1813 it was in use in Calcutta (now Kolkata), to contact Sagar Island.
Though Samuel Morse patented the telegraph in 1837, it did not come into public use in the US, till 1844. But even in 1937, engineers employed by the East India Company, in Calcutta were using the system to send messages to Diamond Harbour, 33 kms away.
When wired communications went wireless, the world -- or at least those parts where the education system was drawn up in Europe, the UK or the US -- was taught to hail achievements like Italian Guglielmo Marconi’s first long distance transmission across the Atlantic Ocean in December 1901.
How many Indian students are taught even today that that historic wireless reception in Newfoundland, Canada, was made possible only because of a semiconductor diode invented in India, by Jagdish Chandra Bose? It was announced by him in a communication to the Royal Society, London in 1899, which presumably trickled down to Italy. In one of the bigger scandals of western science, Marconi had the temerity to file for a British patent for the device, a move which even then, was controversial.
The history of telecommunications is replete with examples where Indian innovation has made timely interventions to ensure that her citizens could benefit from global advances in a timely and affordable fashion. Yet these examples of creative engineering have rarely received the appreciation they deserve, reminding one of the Hindi saying, ‘Ghar ki murgi, daal baraabar’. Roughly translated, it means, we don’t appreciate the things in our own house, or in an equivalent English idiom: Familiarity breeds contempt.
On a day when 5G mobile services are slated for formal launch in India, it is heartening to find in a book just released, a simple narration of the century old saga of telecommunications up to and including 5G—but from a unique Indian perspective.
“Wireless: The latest telecom story” is authored by veteran Indian science communicator, Mohan Sundara Rajan, who has written over 25 popular science books, over a career spanning 5 decades. As a member of the Indian Information Service, he served as Editor-in-Chief All India Radio and as the media spokesperson for various Union ministries before doing a stint as Senior Editor for the Asian Development Bank, Manila, Philippines.
“Wireless” is arguably his most popular work – the latest edition is the seventh – and it has been substantially revised and expanded to cover all the technologies underlying 5G, as well as an interesting providing take on Digital India in a changing world.
Joining the global satcom network
When chronicling every achievement of a global panoply of telecommunication innovators, Mr Sundara Rajan, provides a useful codicil that gives the Indian perspective or Indian timeline in the deployment. The early years of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL) from 1986, saw India join the world community of nations linked for satellite communications, with a first earth station in Arvi on the Mumbai-Pune highway linked to the overseas gateway in that strikingly tall tower in Mumbai, near Hutatma Chowk. It brought Internet to India in 1995 almost along with the rest of the world, but much more adffordably.
As a Tata company since 2004, VSNL continues to provide satellite links for the Direct To Home (DTH) services of all India-based television services.
There is an entire chapter on INSAT – India’s own communication satellite series. This has graduated to create the India Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) of 7 satellites which serve as a global positioning system – one of only six such systems world-wide. The operational face of this is NavIC or Navigation with Indian Constellation, meaning navigator in Hindi and will likely be available soon on all mobile phones sold in India. The strategic importance of possessing one’s own navigation and positioning system cannot be overemphasized.
Geo or geostationary satellite systems for communication will soon compete with Leo or Low Earth Orbit satellites – and the book provides an elegant chapter describing this technology where too, India is an early player by virtue of Bharti (Airtel) owning a majority stake in a leading global LEO player – OneWeb. By next year the company is expected to offer Satellite-based Internet services to Indian corporates.
Indian contribution to WiFi
The book treats the technologies that complemented cellular communications across 5 generations. An Indian-led company, Beceem, developed the critical chipset for WiMax, the beyond-line-of-sight extension of WiFi. (WiMax been subsumed into what became Long Term Evolution or LTE).
India-born Dr A. Paulraj, the co-founder of the company is widely known as the Father of WiMax and he has gone on to invent the key elements of MIMO or Multiple In Multiple Out, the technology that sharply increases the data capacity of wireless networks used for 4G or 5G mobile systems. It achieves this by the use of multiple transmit and receive antennas so that more than one signal data signal can be used over the same radio channel.
American households for many years used something called Sling box to send the video content of all the TV channels they subscribe, wirelessly to any other TV set, or laptop, any where in the world via Internet. Few of the users know – or are told -- that the device was designed by engineers in Bengaluru.
The book chronicles this -- and the fact that the universal chip that allows you to watch TV on a mobile phone was developed in the Hyderabad and Bengaluru labs of Qualcomm.
Made-in-India 5Gi standard
The new era of connectivity launched by 5G and the promise it holds for India occupies a complete chapter – and author places the generation of a separate standard --5Gi --by Indian academics and scientists in the historical context it deserves. (5Gi is now formally recognized by the International Telecommunication Union and will form part of the global standard)..
India is not just one of the largest mobile user-geographies in the world. Its scientists have created a new standard to enhance it use for its own people, where it matters most—in the rural reaches.
5Gi is a fitting finale to this timely, topical book that retells the wireless telecom story, giving credit to all who contributed, worldwide, but also reminding Indians of their own significant milestones and achievements over a century-long journey.
This review has appeared in Swarajya