Free Software Makes Telephone Users' Lives Easier in India

by Frederick Noronha

Thanks to free software, one-third of a million telephone users living in Southern India will no longer find locating phone numbers such a complex process. Telephone directories often take a notoriously long time to be published in India, meaning phone subscribers are lost when trying to locate numbers they need.

Linux increasingly is attracting attention in Corporate India, not only for its usually lower costs but also because of its high quality products. Last weekend, the latest edition of the Thiruvananthapuram telephone directory--from the regional capital of the south-western province of Kerala--was processed and typeset using a range of free software tools. These tools provided substantial savings in cost and time, while producing a neatly laid-out and elegant publication ahead of schedule.

The two-volume directory, to be distributed to all subscribers of the Thiruvananthapuram secondary switching area as of March 25, contains 1,200 pages and 320,000 entries. Some 400,000 copies of the directory currently are being printed by the locally based St. Joseph's Press, using typesetting software and programs provided by River Valley Technologies (RVT), also based in the Kerala capital. RVT specialises in typesetting and publishing solutions using free and open-source software.

For the phone directory publishers domestic telecom giant Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), this is the first complete directory to be published since 1999. K. Sreekantan Nair, Principal General Manager of the Thiruvananthapuram telecom district, said BSNL has spent Rs 35 million on printing the directory.

Normally, an order of this magnitude--a print run of 400,000 copies, each with 1,200 pages printed on 48 GSM white paper in three columns of Helvetica Narrow 7 point typeface, with 94 lines per column--would have taken six months and involved around 50 employees wholly dedicated to the work.

In this case, however, the press was able to finish the entire printing process in four months, using a smaller team. At present, SJP's printing presses are operating 21 hours per day at their maximum capacity of 20,000 copies per hour to finish the printing.

Using software like PageMaker or QuarkXPress could have taken a longer time, said RVT. Instead, they used a combination of free software programs to extract BSNL's data, process it and typeset it into camera-ready copy.

RVT managing director C. V. Radhakrishnan said the BSNL data of telephone numbers, subscribers names and addresses was supplied as files in dBase, an outdated database software that goes back to the days of the DOS operating system. Using a set of free software libraries downloaded from the Internet and locally customised, this data was extracted into the PostgreSQL relational database, also free software, and was then entirely recreated.

RVT wrote a Java program to pipe this newly generated database into TeX. From TeX, RVT produced the final output as Portable Document Format (PDF) files, using pdfTeX, also free software.

"So powerful is TeX that it was able to process nearly 1,200 pages in just four minutes", says Radhakrishnan. "Not only that, since it is also a programming language, it is able to do several things automatically, like the generation of header markers, for example", he adds.

To incorporate corrections and editorial changes to the proof sheets, RVT designed a graphical spreadsheet interface for SJP. This also helped to save time in updating the almost 10,000 entries that had changed since the last directory was printed four years ago.

Recent reports in India's enterprise-based Network Magazine also noted the small but growing number of other industrial ventures starting to try out GNU/Linux in their "mission critical space".

Asian Paints, India's largest paint company, has implemented SAP modules on GNU/Linux. IDBI Bank, with over 91 branches, runs its core banking applications on it. Rolta India runs its database containing thousands of users, while ICICI Infotech runs its knowledge management applications, and C-DAC runs e-governance solutions on GNU/Linux.

Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist living in Goa, India.

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