Shanghai Telecom Museum

2010-03-31 05:13:32

 As an "insider" in the telecom industry for about 30 years, I could be among the most telling witnesses of the exceptional developments in terms of both technology and market.
 About thirty years ago a private telephone line was considered a prized possession and a status symbol - even in the biggest cities like Shanghai. Network capacity was so limited that numbers had to be, like many other things at the time, rationed among neighborhoods or company compounds. Even those lucky enough to get a phone had to wait for months and pay 4,000 yuan - several times an average monthly salary - to have a line installed. Most private lines were not direct numbers but extensions attached to company switchboards that would be hopelessly jammed during peaks on major holidays.
 China is now easily the world's largest market for fixed-line or mobile phones. However, the journey has taken about 140 years and early development was heavily affected by expansion of foreign business and political interests.
 It is interesting to look back to the time of the telegraph before modern communications. Like the fate of many Western inventions, the first attempt to introduce the telegraph into Shanghai also resulted in a failure. In 1865 during the Qing Dynasty, a line was set up to establish telegraphic connections between Shanghai and Wusong, so that people in the foreign settlements could be informed of the shipping movements at the mouth of the Yangtze River. The farmers destroyed the poles, which they said had a bad effect on the "Fengshui" of the locality.
 In 1881, just five years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, a British company launched China's maiden public telephone service in Richard's Hotel (presently Pujiang Hotel), Shanghai. The next year, the city's first manual switchboard was set up, with fewer than 30 users. A move by the Qing Dynasty to launch the indigenous telephone services in 1899 was disrupted by the invasion of eight European powers. Instead, a Danish merchant is credited for establishing a telephone company in Tianjin in 1900 and in the same year installing the country's first long-distance cable between Tianjin and Beijing. Fewer than 100 telephone subscribers were signed up in Beijing then, mostly foreign embassies and securities forces.
 So obvious was the colonial influence that when the country's first telephone directory was launched in Shanghai in 1910, two separate numbers were provided for use by foreigners and locals.
 China's first automatic switchboard, manufactured by Ericsson, was installed in Shanghai in 1924, and by 1931, a 160km underground long-distance telephone cable, the country's first, was installed between Guangzhou and Hong Kong that could accommodate more than 30 lines. Five years later, China's first international long-distance line was set up between Shanghai and Tokyo.
 After the communists came into power in 1949, industry development adopted a bias towards the Soviet bloc, with connections set up between Beijing and Moscow by 1950. At that time, the national switching system could only accommodate 310,000 lines and 208,750 telephone subscribers. The telephone density was only 0.05 percent. By the end of 1977, telephone density was only a miniscule 0.36 per cent of the population, and it was growing by less than 0.02 per cent each year.
 In June 1979, the State Council promulgated the policy of telephone installation fees, i.e., the telephone subscribers were charged for having their telephones installed. The fees collected were used for the development of the local telephone service. The installation fee, widely criticized by the general public for many years, served as one of the major resources for the high speed growth of the communications sector. Among developments in the 1980s that paved the way for future growth was the assembling of the first batch of SPC telephone switching systems in Shanghai in 1985 and the issuance of prepaid telephone cards in Shenzhen in the same year. It was only after 1989 when more liberal industry policies, heavy infrastructure investments, network expansion and lowered fees spurred exponential sector growth. Guangzhou launched the country's maiden mobile-phone network in 1987, with an initial group of 700 users.
 Even the telephone reflects the socio-economic changes of China. Before 1949, telephone sets were often imported from the United States and Germany. Phone services were considered such a luxury that deluxe sets were custom-made for aristocrats, tycoons and prominent officials. These have become collectors' items…
 Shanghai is one of the places where China's telecom industry originated. Great Northern Telegraph Company, a Danish firm, was the first foreign telecom operator to enter Shanghai, taking the lead in connecting the line, even as it clashed with the Chinese in attempts to extend it inland. In June 1870, the company rented No.5 Nanjing Road, Shanghai for launching its Shanghai branch, but owing to various mishaps it was not until the spring of 1871 that a cable was successfully laid from Hong Kong to the rocky island of Gutzlaff off the mouth of the Yangtze River. From there the cable was extended along the bed of the river to Wusong and thence to the city of Shanghai, and they arbitrarily introduced the cable, the first of its kind in the country, to Shanghai for business. The maiden service was launched on April 18, 1871. That was the prologue to the China's telecom history and the origin of telecommunications in Shanghai. The Danish company constructed a building near the Bund for its growing business in 1921.
 The building (No.34 Yan'an Road East) is on the list of Shanghai Heritage Architecture. Right in the building now is Shanghai Telecom Museum, which is divided into five parts: telegraphy, local telephony, wireless communication, long distance telephone and other collections. It illustrates how the industry grows in Shanghai. An audio guide will be available when the 2010 World Expo Shanghai is staged in May.
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张力平,IT行业资深分析师。Zhang Liping, aka Sevencastles,a senior analyst in IT industry and the owner of Seven Castles,'a Shanghai blog featuring news and views of great interest'.