If a company has too little of the better bands, the quality of voice service drops.
Everyone hates the increasingly frequent dropped calls, but no one seems able to do anything about them. The Department of Telecom blames the telecom operators; the operators point to the shortage of both spectrum and towers.
Mobile phones work using radio waves in the frequency range of 300 MHz and 3,000 MHz. But the entire range is not available for use. Critically, the lower the number, the better the quality of transmisison.
It makes sense for a telecom company to pitch for a 900 MHz band instead of 2,100 MHz or even 1,800 MHz. Since limited space is available in each band, companies jostle for more space in the better (or lower) bands.
If a company has too little of the better bands, the quality of voice service drops. It also drops if the number of customers rises. India has 961 million mobile phone subscribers, the most in the world after China. Too many companies are slicing up the available bands into smaller parcels. There is little comparable international data, but India’s telecom regulator concedes it is possibly the highest among mature telecom markets.
Towers act as boosters that help radio waves travel better, and are a necessary part of the telecom architecture in any country. There are approximately 5,50,000 towers in India, and industry associations reckon another 1,00,000 are needed. The lower radio bands need fewer towers to travel longer distances, so when telecom companies offer richer services like 3G or 4G, they have to be at higher frequencies (2,100 MHz or 2,300 MHz instead of 900 MHz), which need more tower support.
Problems occur due to several reasons.
Cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Jaipur and Patna have far fewer towers than are needed. Civic authorities across the country have shut down a total of around 10,000 towers. Another 12,000 cannot be used due to various reasons.
Telecom companies are reluctant to share towers. This is because they are fixed investments by subsidiaries of telecom companies or by standalone companies for whom a sharing formula does not work.
Permission to erect a tower is given by the municipal body. No uniform standards or procedures exist here.
The setting up of boosters on buildings remains a contested area, and permission has to be obtained on a case-by-case basis. Things could improve if telecom connectivity were seen as being similar to water and power supply, and developers were to apply for a uniform set of permissions.
Do companies benefit from call drops?
Depends on the tariff plan. If it’s measured in seconds, the telecom company gains nothing — no matter how many times the connection snaps, billing resumes at the same rate. But if it is measured in minutes, or if the plan contains features such as a certain number of free calls in every billing cycle, call drops hurt the consumer.
Telecom firms claim 95 per cent of tariff plans involve billing in seconds. Since call drops are the most common in high-congestion areas, interruptions tend to shorten the call and, to that extent, reduce the average revenue per user per minute. Since companies measure their performance on the basis of call drops too, it is risky for anyone to deliberately create conditions for drops, thus incentivising porting to another operator.
There is a shortage of spectrum in key bands like 900 MHz and 1,800 MHz. The government insists that call drops can be addressed to a large extent through better management of spectrum, but that can provide only partial relief. Call drops peak in high-congestion areas, typically city centres. This means there is an unequal spread of traffic across the spectrum, which cannot be made good by diverting traffic on to an adjacent, underutilised spectrum. That would be a reflected light signal, with gaps in the voice akin to international calls at times.
Again, DoT guidelines are not mandatory, since the jurisdiction over towers lies with the state governments or civic bodies.
What the Government can do
a) Offer more spectrum by releasing some from the defence services
b) allow trading of spectrum to reduce the cost of adding on to spectrum
c) encourage states to follow uniform procedures on towers
d) free up the roofs of government buildings to erect towers
e) set up a nationally publicized database on call drops to force laggard companies to improve on their services.
* Telecom firms claim they have spent Rs 1,29,000 cr ($ 22.4 bn) on airwaves, other investment in 2015
* Total annual revenue for the companies was Rs 1,76,000 cr in 2014 — about 73 per cent capex
* In contrast, China Mobile spent $ 35 bn in 2014
* There are 13 service operators in India; 7 have pan-India networks
* Urban teledensity is above 100 across India; Delhi’s is the highest at 222.78
* TRAI figures show call drops have improved in last reported quarter across firms to less than 2%
* But in worst affected areas, drop rate remains 12.5%, which means more than one of 10 calls drop
* In Delhi, no operator has a call drop ratio within the acceptable range of under 3%. Mumbai is a shade better off