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.
Sam Pitroda, WorldTel
Pitroda was born in Titilagarh Orissa.
did his schooling from Anand Vallabh Vidyalaya in Gujarat.
did his Masters in physics and electronics in Baroda.
the mid 60s, he went to the US and did his masters in electrical
1966, he got a job in GTE, Chicago, which focussed on digital
1974, he left GTE and started his own company called Wescom Switching in
Chicago, which was sold to Rockwell International six years later.
joined Rockwell where he was head of telecom and stayed with Rockwell for
1981, Pitroda returned to India and founded the Center for Development of
Telematics in 1984.
1987 he became Chief Technology Advisor to the late Prime Minister Rajeev
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.
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
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
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
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.
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