Lack of investment by telecom firms in network infrastructure like mobile towers, appears to be the main reason behind the “pervasive problem” of call drops across the country, TRAI told Delhi High Court today.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) told the court that the telecom majors, including Vodafone, Bharti Airtel and Reliance, “have failed to keep the investments commensurate with the pace of increase in usage and the growth in number of subscribers being added by them”.
This was stated by TRAI in an affidavit placed before a bench of Chief Justice G Rohini and Justice Jayant Nath which said it would hear the matter tomorrow after the cellular operators file their response to the authority’s affidavit.
“The investment made in the infrastructure (other than radio spectrum) in wireless access service segment rose by only 4.6 per cent from Rs 2,02,399 crore in the financial year 2012-2013 to Rs 2,11,691 crore in financial year 2013-2014. During this period, the minutes of usage (MOU) grew by 6.8 per cent and the data usage grew by more than 100 per cent.
“Clearly, the investment has not kept pace with the usage. It appears that the lack of investment in network infrastructure by the petitioners is one of the main reasons for the problem of call drops,” TRAI has said.
It has also said that “the surge in data consumption has led to an increase in the share of data revenue in the overall subscriber revenue of the telecom service providers (TSPs).
“However, they cannot be permitted to ignore the quality of service of voice calls, which continues to be the primary service for the telecom consumers.”
The telecom regulator’s response came on the pleas filed by Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India (AUSPI) and 21 telecom operators, challenging TRAI’s October 16, 2015, rule mandating them to pay consumers one rupee per call drop experienced on their networks, subject to a cap of Rs 3 a day.
TRAI has refuted the claim of the telecom majors that they would incur huge losses if the compensation rule was implemented, saying “the total financial implication on service providers was likely to be not more than Rs 800 crore per annum” which would be 0.75 per cent of their Adjusted Gross Revenue of Rs 1,38,566 crores for the year 2014-15.
TRAI has said in its affidavit that the telcos have to compensate a consumer only when the call originates from its network and is dropped within its network.
It further said the problem of call drops was not on account of difficulties being faced by the service providers in installing mobile towers, “as this problem of call drop was found even in those circles where there was no issue relating to installation of mobile towers”.
On the issue of lack of infrastructure, the regulator has said that data provided by the companies “clearly shows” that the number of base stations installed by Indian operators as compared to other countries was much lower than what was required for catering to the traffic requirements.
It said that while the number of subscribers per base station in case of China Mobile Communications Corporation was 430, the number of subscribers per base station in case of a typical Indian operator was 1200.
“This clearly shows that the Indian operators have not deployed sufficient base stations to cater to need of the consumers,” it said.
It also said that while the telecom companies have claimed that they require sufficient spectrum to run their networks efficiently, “a large amount of spectrum has remained unsold when it was put up for sale”.
On the issue of sealing of mobile towers that was raised by the cellular companies, the regulator has said that it had in 2012 “facilitated the private service providers to share the towers with a public sector service provider, which had sufficient number of towers in the area”.
“Besides, a whole new breed of technological advancements have happened in the network design and optimisation of cellular network,” it added.
With regard to telecom majors’ claim that fear of radiation emitted from mobile towers has resulted in large shutdown of their network, TRAI has said the companies have themselves admitted that only 80 sites were shutdown in the Delhi Licensed Service Area (LSA) in the last two years, which amounts to less than 0.3 per cent of the total base stations.
“Call drops is a pervasive problem in the country and seems to have aggravated with the passage of time leading to increased consumers dissatisfaction. Existing measures have not served to reduce the incidence of such call drops.
“Hence, the necessity and importance of the impugned regulation which is not only reasonable but has a clear and rational linkage with the object sought to be achieved i.e. reducing call drops,” TRAI has said defending its decision.
It said that this was a policy decision in the nature of “subordinate legislation” and there was no scope for interference by the courts.
The telecom regulator, in its affidavit, said that as per “drive tests” carried out throughout the country by it in 2015, there has been no substantial improvement in the performance of the networks of the companies.
It said that the efforts the companies claimed to have made “are inadequate” as call drops continue to be a major concern.
It also said that investments to upgrade the network were being made only after repeated intervention by it.
TRAI said that financial disincentives levied upon the telecom majors for not meeting benchmarks under the quality of service regulations do not provide any relief to individual consumers and that is why the regulation for providing compensation was formulated.
The cellular operators had earlier told the court that the penalty was being levied without considering the infrastructure problems faced by the companies.
They had said that TRAI was “playing to the galleries” by bringing out the regulations and was not concerned that the telecom firms had inadequate spectrum, not enough towers and the towers they have, are operated at one-tenth of their levels to reduce radiation.
They had also submitted if the Re 1 penalty was levied, the companies would end up paying around Rs 1000 crore to Rs 1500 crore and not Rs 800 crore as TRAI was saying.