Telegrams are not completely tapped out

21 June 2013 by Steve Blum

Key to a sustainable telecoms platform.

The telegram, the original electronic messaging medium, is 175 years old and still carrying traffic, at least in some parts of the world. But the end might finally be in sight. India’s state owned telecoms company, BSNL, is shutting down telegram service next month, citing smartphones and text messaging as the cause.

The one thing that telegrams do as a matter of course, and competing media do not, is provide third-party authentication of an electronic message. Telegrams are still accepted as legal filings in India, and used to be considered contractually binding in most places in the world. Emailed documents are often treated the same way, but verifying content, senders and recipients requires a lot of extra work.

That feature doesn’t seem to add much value anymore, though. BSNL currently handles about 5,000 telegrams a day – a minuscule number in a country with a billion people. The U.S. has done without for seven years, since Western Union pulled the plug.

Private telegram companies and a few PTT dinosaurs are still in the business. The humble telegram has been in declining health for many years but still manages to hang on.

It’s hard to imagine any of the electronic messaging media developed during the past few decades still being used in the twenty-third century. Some might survive by moving onto new technology platforms, much as telegram traffic shifted from Morse Code keying to telex, but most are likely to disappear completely and, in some cases, suddenly.

That kind of disruption isn’t new either. The state of the art transcontinental messaging platform in 1861 was the Pony Express, as soaked in fable and glory while it operated as it is in popular memory today. But communications is a heartless business: two days after California was connected to the eastern U.S. by telegraph, the Pony Express was shut down. Then and now, buzz is no substitute for performance.