The Death of the Telegram

With just a little thought and research one can easily trace the evolution of the technology behind today’s VoIP telephony back to the earliest days of communications over wire – the telegraph. The dots and dashes that made up the Morse Code used in early telegraphy are directly analogous to the binary on-off that’s behind all things digital today, including VoIP. It’s simply a matter of the speed that the signal moves, and the way and how its interpreted.

So it’s with a deep sense of history that I read this week of the impending death of telegraphic communications.

Now many Americans, being very provincial, think the last telegram was sent, via Western Union, on Feb. 2, 2006, with other countries around the world following suit. But the world doesn’t revolve around the U.S.A. The truth is that telegraph service has continued to live on in India, with Indian government-run BSNL still delivering an estimated 5,000 telegrams per day. Now, that’s due to come to an end on July 14, BSNL has announced. Indeed the announcement is said to have precipitated a rush to the Indian telegraph office by people seeking to secure a piece of history.

And just as a matter of interest, it seems the first telegraph system was built by British colonialists in India, back in 1833, in the Calcutta area. The inventor was a surgeon named William O’Shaughnessy, and that was 11 years before the legendary event in which Samuel Morse wired “What hath god wrought?” from Washington D.C. to Baltimore in Morse code, an event that most Americans think marks the invention of telegraphy.

As to what has killed the Indian telegraph system, the answer is the cell phone. According to India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) there were 861.66 million mobile connections in India as of February – a number almost three times the size of the entire population of the United States! With such a mobile user base, it’s hardly a surprise to me that telegrams aren’t used that much any more. The result is that BSNL’s telegraph service has been running deep in the red.

And of course for written material, e-Mail can easily replace telegrams – if you have an Internet connection. While the percentage of businesses and households in India with broadband is still not a majority, it’s getting there fast. India has the fastest Internet traffic growth globally and is expected to have 348 million users by 2017, according to networking giant Cisco’s latest Visuals Networking Index (VNI) forecast (Phone.com offers Cisco VoIP hardware, including its analog terminal adapter (ATA) and a very attractive entry-level VoIP phone).

As for VoIP in India, it remains highly restricted by laws that protect traditional landline companies. But use of PCs to call to numbers outside of India is legal, and I would guess it’s only a matter of time before the Indian laws change and open a vast new market to the VoIP industry.

Still I will always remember the old days, when I would drop off my newspaper stories at a Western Union office in some remote place in the U.S., or perhaps at the post office in another country, to be sent via telegram back to the city room.