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Sunday, 3 February 2013





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Long live the telegram

The telegram is dead. Long live the telegram. Indeed, reports on the death of the telegram seem to have been greatly exaggerated. According to a report in our sister paper the Daily News, Posts Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga has assured that there are no plans to scrap the service at the moment despite the availability of more modern means of communication.

The telegram is the medium of message of the telegraph service, the very first successful electro-mechanical means of communication. Telegraphy literally means “distance writing” - it was a revolution that enabled instant communications over seas and continents. It has been around since 1837, when American inventor Samuel Morse (hence the “Morse Code”) invented the electrical telegraph. Even though the telephone was invented just a few decades later, telegraphy remained a potent medium because the telephone network took decades to reach many areas.

In fact, the humble telegram was the only choice for many people who did not have access to telephones in case they wanted to send an urgent message to the other side of the country or even to someone living abroad. We have heard many jokes about misspelled telegrams (patient expired for patient x-rayed, for example), but these prove how important the service was to everyone. It was usually the only way to inform someone of the death of a relative or a friend. Fixed telephones became widespread in this country only in the late 1980s and even then, the telegram reigned supreme especially in rural areas.

However, the advent of cellular telephony has greatly reduced the demand for telegram services. With the number of telephones in active use almost exceeding the country’s population, it is safe to assume that almost everyone has access to a cellular telephone. This means that most people are only a call or text message away. The fax machine too has made its presence felt - you can transmit pages of documents with a just a few keystrokes to anywhere in the world. (The telex machine, a development of the telegraph service, is almost dead).


But the biggest change in the telecom sector in undoubtedly the Internet. I can video chat with a person on the other side of the world, while chatting with someone else via text.

We can exchange photographs and documents instantly. I can email him with a project proposal, which he can edit and send back. Conference calls can be set up easily with friends and associates all over the world. Email has made it possible to send and exchange information easily. Moreover, you can easily access the Net via mobile phones and tablets - the Net is with you all the time.

With most post offices now equipped with email and fax facilities, even those who have no such facilities at home can avail themselves of these modern services for a nominal fee.

The telegram service is closely associated with another vital service, which is also becoming less popular - the Money Order. This used to be the only way to send money to a person living in another part of the country. The conduit was the post office - there is hardly a village without at least a sub-post office in this country. It was a very convenient and safe way of transferring money.

However, the computerisation of banking operations and the subsequent proliferation of Automated Teller Machines (ATM) have nearly made the money order redundant.

If you want to send money to another person, all you do is deposit the required amount to his or her bank account.

That amount can be withdrawn instantly from an ATM of the bank in question. The Money Order is still a very useful instrument to send funds to someone who does not have a bank account, though.

However, electronic money transfer, an evolution of the money order, is very popular worldwide. Most local banks now offer such services under several international brand names.

This has made it easier for those working in the Middle East and elsewhere to send money to their families back home. One can send money by visiting a bank or online.

In fact, in countries such as the US, these money transfer companies still offer telegram services as well which show the close connection between the two services.

There are also privately owned international telegram companies such as iTelegram which still have substantial business despite the many advances made in the telecom sector. Indeed, it is now possible to send an international telegram online and there is a roaring trade in ‘telegramming’ wedding and birthday party invitations.

Telegrams Online, which operates from the UK, even has a memorable slogan which says it all - “they will never forget a telegram”. Yes, unlike an email, it is a physical, tangible thing which can be cherished for decades.


Our postal authorities should take a close look at how developed countries have improved their telegram services through innovative new products, even in the age of the World Wide Web. Ironically, they are using the WWW itself to garner more telegram traffic by allowing users to upload their telegrams online for a small fee.

They are then delivered physically to the intended recipients anywhere in the world. That is the best approach to take (“If you can’t fight them, join them”).

This way, telegrams can still stay relevant in a fast-moving world where instant communications are the norm.

Innovation is the key for postal services everywhere, faced with the challenge of improvising and improving their products in the age of the Internet even as the traditional letter is dying.

One example is the entry of the post office to the courier business (e-commerce is getting bigger - someone has to send all those parcels ordered online) while the provision of Internet services to customers is another. Post offices should do more to popularise stamp collecting as well.

They should necessarily go online to offer certain services including telegrams and money transfer. Post offices are also offering banking services. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to pioneer this concept and our post offices have joined hands with international and local banks to offer banking services.

In myriad ways like this, the Post can and will coexist side-by-side with the Internet and all other modern means of communication.



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