The road to perdition, as Einstein quipped, has ever been accompanied by lip service to an ideal. And ideal it is—Indian telecom having crossed the high watermark of 1 billion subscribers, with over 97.4% users connected wirelessly. Ironically, this seems like lip service in light of the disturbing development—the famously frequent call drops is a disturbing development in the world’s second largest telecom market. Going by the numbers from Trai, 13.7% of 2G operators and 16% of 3G operators had call drops of more than the prescribed 3% limit during the quarter ending December 2014.
Amid concerns, the government ordered a special audit of mobile networks and asked the regulator to frame a system of ‘incentives and disincentives’ with respect to service quality. The test results revealed that most operators did not meet the benchmarks of network-related parameters. Operators argue otherwise, boiling down the debate to inadequate spectrum and insufficient sites as a result of misplaced fear of radiation.
So, why is there an immediate concern over call drops? Fundamentally, the delivery of wireless services hinges on the availability of spectrum as well as the underlying tower infrastructure. In terms of spectrum availability, India is operating at significantly low levels—the average spectrum holding is at about 18 MHz per operator, which is lowest amongst international peers and lower than the global average of about 50 MHz.
On the other hand, despite the heavy operator investments on acquiring spectrum, insufficient tower infrastructure to cater to this demand is leading to poor quality of service and call drops.
Telecom towers house transceiver stations, which transmit spectrum in a particular coverage area. Currently, India has close to 450,000 telecom towers and the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA) estimates an additional 150,000 towers required to provide pervasive mobile connectivity and bridge availability gaps in India.
Without ample towers, operators are unable to expand capacity of existing network and deal with surge in traffic.
Even globally, India lags behind peers with 476.7 towers per million subscribers against 1,010.8 in China and 520.3 in Russia.
As the country continues to witness increase in voice traffic, the congestion on telecom networks is also increasing. Mobile outgoing minutes of use are estimated to grow at a CAGR of 5.2% to reach 5 trillion minutes in 2014-17. The issue is more pronounced in dense urban locations, where mobile usage is more.
Growing urbanisation provides an opportunity for operators to serve more consumers. On the other hand, rapid urbanisation leads to changes in topography which require changes in telecom network planning. For instance, newer urban structures such as tall buildings and flyovers hinder the propagation of signals. Similarly, new townships and residential or commercial areas require additional sites to increase coverage area.
Reversing the tide of call drops is largely dependent upon installation of telecom towers for ubiquitous coverage.
However, this is easier said than done, with operators facing multiple challenges in the rollout of towers.
The lack of uniformity in Right of Way (RoW) guidelines and the absence of a single window clearance are key barriers for timely rollout of towers. For instance, some state and municipal bodies have restricted installation of towers in and around water bodies, hospitals, airports, defence establishments, etc. Sealing of towers is also a major contributor to call drops—with Mumbai and Delhi witnessing 801 sites and 523 sites shut-down during the last six months, respectively.
Then there is the issue of strict emission limit norms and misplaced fears on health and safety. As per global agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is no study proving that EMF radiation from base transceiver station (BTS) towers causes health hazard. India has adopted strict radiation limit norms from BTS, which are one-tenth of global norms.
The stringent radiation norms impact network quality and affect the site yield, since the transmission power of towers is reduced. In order to ensure good quality of service, the operators therefore need to install additional towers. However, public concerns regarding health and safety from telecom towers hinder tower rollout.
There is a need for technological advancement and collaborative effort to combat call drops. First, installation of in-building solutions and heterogeneous networks presents an attractive remedy for addressing capacity constraints.
Heterogeneous networks deploy a mix of technologies, frequencies and cell sizes to improve coverage and increase capacity. On the downside, this approach requires additional investments, which will add to the burden of the already debt-laden sector.
Second, a few companies are also considering satellite communications. With a constellation of multiple satellites, companies can achieve significant reductions in time delays, thereby resulting in better user experience. That is a dramatic rethink!
Finally, the government should help create an enabling environment for tower installation by ensuring implementation of uniform RoW across state-level bodies. Additional tower rollouts and removing the public fear on emissions from BTS is important. Other stakeholders including the media, operators and tower companies also need to play a more proactive role to create awareness and remove misplaced apprehensions. Together, participation by all players in the ecosystem can ensure a timely resolution on the issue of call drops and provide better user experience to a billion Indians.
If the wise words of Einstein are anything to go by, then “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them.” It is the right time for an urgent, transformative, imaginative and conclusive rethink on part of all the stakeholders and all the beneficiaries to making success of the mighty ambitions of the Digital India plan.
Indian telecom is the world’s most successful and notable communications story and the customer experience should speak for itself, sans any call drops on that one.
The author is the global telecommunications leader at EY