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Sam Pitroda: Lifetime Achievement Award 2002
In connecting the remotest corners of India to the world, Pitroda paved the path for propagating IT to the masses. We salute a lifetime marked by rebellion and true visionary zeal
Dataquest
Friday, December 27, 2002

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If there’s one man who built the foundation of the revolution in telephony usage in India in the last two decades of the 20th century, it is Sam Pitroda.

His vision, and his technology, helped connect the people of India—in its far-flung regions and remotest corners, to each other and to the world. When the developed world saw a resource-strained country heading toward a billion people separated by large distances, it saw a tele-density gap nearly impossible to bridge. Looking at the same mammoth problem, Sam Pitroda saw access, not tele-density, as the solution.

He visualized a countrywide network of thousands of phone booths to provide this access. He battled conventional wisdom and lobbies that questioned why impoverished people needed telecom.

Pitroda has been a crusader for long. As a young man, he battled stiff opposition from the ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’ lobby, which was against the concept of a ‘connected’ India. But this young man stood his ground, making the case that telecommunication—along with substantial food, clean water and adequate shelter—was a fundamental component in the process of modernization. The smattering of bright yellow STD PCO boxes in India today, is a manifestation of his efforts.

Timeline: Sam Pitroda, WorldTel
Sam Pitroda was born in Titilagarh Orissa.
He did his schooling from Anand Vallabh Vidyalaya in Gujarat.
He did his Masters in physics and electronics in Baroda.
In the mid 60s, he went to the US and did his masters in electrical engineering.
In 1966, he got a job in GTE, Chicago, which focussed on digital communications.
In 1974, he left GTE and started his own company called Wescom Switching in Chicago, which was sold to Rockwell International six years later.
He joined Rockwell where he was head of telecom and stayed with Rockwell for three years.
In 1981, Pitroda returned to India and founded the Center for Development of Telematics in 1984.
In 1987 he became Chief Technology Advisor to the late Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi.
In 1989 he was elected first chairman of India’s Telecom Commission, where he was responsible for all aspects of national and international Telecom and over 500 000 employees.
After his stint in India, Pitroda went back to the US and worked on WorldTel, an organization initiated by ITU to help develop telecom infrastructure in developing countries. Currently, he is the chairman of WorldTel.

Pitroda’s tenacity helped create the concept and technology behind the network of ‘STD/PCO’ phone booths across the country, in every village. The 600,000 booths, providing employment for a million people, today dot the remotest regions of India. This model is unique in the world, unparalleled to this day.

The basic technology behind this network was simple and cheap. Created by Pitroda’s team at the Center for Development of Telematics, which he founded in 1984, it was a device that displayed the phone call cost and generated an instant bill at the user’s end, instead of at the telephone exchange. This changed Indian telephony. In revolutionizing the state of telecom in India, he also created a model for other developing nations. Along the way, he also notched up over 50 patents, for digital switching, synchronization, tone generation, tone receiving, conferencing, and 10 of them for m-commerce.

Along the way, this crusader also notched up over 50 patents. On the m-commerce front, Pitroda has ten patents to his credit and is currently working on an ‘electronic wallet’, which would have all kinds of cards—credit card, debit card, health card, insurance card, and even the driving license. Everything is stored electronically and delivered over the air. "The future lies in electronic payment systems. The payment systems that exist are obsolete. It would make such good sense for the Indian government to deposit the salaries of its employees in a bank straight away, cutting out the logistics of writing out checks and waiting in queues to deposit them. The same goes for the payment of electricity and telephone bills," says Pitroda.

Under Pitroda, C-DoT’s key contribution was the RAX, or rural automatic exchange—small, cheap and robust phone switches that helped take telephony to rural India, forming its telecom backbone.

Sam Pitroda then moved on to helping shape telecom policy. In 1987, he was appointed advisor to the Prime Minister of India, with the rank of minister on national technology missions. In 1989, he became the first chairman of India’s Telecom Commission, responsible for all aspects of telecom legislation and development for the country.

Back in the US, in 1995, Pitroda founded WorldTel—a global organization backed by the ITU—to help develop telecom infrastructure in less developed countries, as CEO and subsequently as Chairman. Today, as India begins to use infotech for administration, it is the telecom network’s reach and usage that it depends on. If not for Pitroda’s vision and his team’s technology, this network would have been much smaller, and the IT revolution would have been later in the coming.

Born in Titilagarh, Orissa, Pitroda did his Masters in Physics and Electronics from Baroda.

Pitroda grew up in a large family with seven brothers and sisters. His father had studied till just grade four, but believed in letting his children do what they wanted to, which helped in the grooming of the young Pitroda. His greatest asset is the friend circle that is spread across different countries. In fact, he has a collection of over 20,000 business cards. Ironically, this father of the Indian telecom revolution first used a telephone only after moving to the US to study electrical engineering. "Since the fascination of that first call, my dream was to set up small, rural exchanges and connect my country," he says.

Soon after this first phone call, came Pitroda’s transition to working on digital switch technology at GTE. After spending ten years in GTE Inc, Chicago, he started a company, Wescom Switching, in 1974, later sold to Rockwell, where he was became head of telecom. In the early 1980s, he began to dream of wiring up India. His dreams crystallized later to providing access, and setting up cheap rural exchanges. In the course of a decade, he turned those dreams into reality. C -DOT found its true moorings and moved along the path to success. With the setting upof C-DoT, he introduced small, rural exchanges to India and brought the telephone to some of the world’s most previously isolated regions. With about 40,000 exchanges totaling about 20 million telephone lines installed in India, C-Dot exports in bulk to about 22 countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia, Nepal, Ghana, Uganda. C-DOT sells its design licenses to about 20 different Indian equipment manufacturers. Instead of spending that decade building up a profitable corporation, he connected and transform a country. And for that decade, he did not take a salary.

Pitroda is also a founding member of the World Telecommunications Advisory Council of the ITU in Geneva. He is also adviser to Kofi Annan on the ICT Advisory Committee. He is the recipient of India’s National Citizen’s Award for work on telecom from the Prime Minister of India. In 1993, he was awarded the IIT Alumni Medal, and in 1995 the International Distinguished Leadership Award.

It is for connecting India and helping provide phone access to a billion people, and building a foundation for a wired India’s future as an information industry powerhouse, Dataquest has presented the IT Lifetime Achievement Award for 2002 to Sam Pitroda.

Team DQ

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