The paper on call drops brought out by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) is timely, but it is unclear whether the imposition of penalties—as Trai has suggested – will really help. As a customer, I am not looking for compensation, I want to be able to complete the call. Trai’s paper, however, doesn’t offer any long-term strategy.
This column examines the reasons for call drops, and tries to offer solutions based on that.
Lack of radio coverage: This could be due to either radio capacity not being fully utilised on a given tower, or due to the need for a new tower to augment capacity—the former is the operator’s responsibility and suggests lack of investment but the latter could be due to owners being unwilling to lease sites.
Radio interference: This could happen when, to meet additional traffic, an operator keeps inter-site distances too low—the only solution for this is to allocate more spectrum, and operators are willing to invest in buying more spectrum, should it be available.
Failed handover or overloading of the networks – common reasons for call drops – are also reasons for which the operator cannot be blamed.
Transmission-related: Operators need microwave spectrum for backhaul to connect various cell sites, or optic fibre.
But right-of-way permissions cost too much and take too long to obtain in each state. One solution is to mandate MTNL/BSNLto share fibre with private operators on commercial terms, to shift connectivity to fibre instead of total dependency on microwave.
Unauthorised repeaters: These cause a lot of damage to networks and TERM cells should make surprise visits and penalize errant users.
What is most surprising is that Trai does not even acknowledge spectrum and tower shortage as significant reasons for call drops, and that is why it does not even look to provide solutions to this. Which is why it says, “So far as the spectrum issue is concerned, the allocation of spectrum is guided by the rules of the Government. On the other hand, resistance of the RWAs is a matter to be resolved by the TSPs with the involvement of the concerned stakeholders.”
Spectrum allocation: It is well-recognised that the spectrum available with operators in India is far less compared to any other part of the world. The demand for higher spectrum would have been unreasonable when the allocation was being made through administrative pricing. But when the spectrum is allocated through auction, and at a huge value, why not auction more spectrum and, as a result, get even more revenues?
One reason for this is that the spectrum being held by non-commercial users is far higher than what is allocated to the operators. What we need is a time-bound plan to shift these non-commercial users to other spectrum bands, to free up more commercial spectrum for telcos. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem a priority for either the government or Trai. But, if done, this will resolve one of the biggest complaints of telcos.
Tower-related issues: Mobile technology cannot work without seamless network of towers. With the problems operators face in getting more towers—and to prevent existing ones from being sealed —it would help if towers could be installed on government buildings in certain sites. Indeed, since MTNL and BSNL have access to certain strategically located sites, making it mandatory for them to share these sites would help, but the progress here is half-hearted. It is unfortunate that, while the emissions policy is the best in the world, the government does not have a policy to help operators to put up additional cell sites.
The Trai paper also does not throw any light on whether the findings of the drive test were superimposed on each operator’s existing network, to identify the specific cause of call drops in the case of each operator. This is necessary because the corrective action required will differ from network to network, and you have to clearly identify, for each operator, the reasons under the categories just discussed. Trai also needs to identify what is under the operator’s control and what is not.
It is not clear as to how and on what basis the regulator has come to a conclusion that operators are hesitant in making investment in network? It would be interesting to know what the results are for MTNL/ BSNL where there is no funds constraint. In fact, the two PSUs are the beneficiaries of the USO Fund and they also have the maximum access to government buildings to instal towers.
Indeed, it is not clear what Trai hopes to achieve when it asks if customers should not be charged for calls that get dropped within 5 seconds. There is no reason for why 5 seconds has been chosen, and not 10 or 15. This will virtually mean that all calls finished within 5 seconds become free and how will we know if a call got dropped or whether it was intentionally terminated? Apart from the disputes this will give rise to, how do we know if the call got dropped due to the calling network or whether this was due to the network that has been called?
If a solution has to be found, the government/regulator and the operators need to appreciate the others point of view and to jointly develop a long-term plan. The Trai can define what a model network should look like and ensure operators are making enough investments in each part of the network to provide good quality service to customers.
The caveat here is that the government has to play its role in both providing adequate amounts of spectrum as well as an enabling policy framework for installation of towers.
The author is founder & CEO, Tathya Consulting