A single line in the over 300-page gazette notification of March 22 by the ministry of urban development (MoUD) for unified building bye-laws in Delhi has ended up becoming a tricky issue for telecom service providers. Since it states that no signage/communication tower and advertisement is to be provided in residential buildings, municipal authorities have ostensibly stopped giving clearances to telecom service providers to set up towers in residential areas, according to a report in The Economic Times. Considering that there are over 18,000 towers in the city of which over 80% are in residential areas, such a move could cripple mobile voice and data services in the city. Though the notification is currently restricted to Delhi, it could soon be replicated by other states. The problem for Indian operators is that they need to invest more in infrastructure—towers, optic fibre networks—since the average spectrum holding of operators at 15MHz is just a third of the global average of 45MHz. As a result, the networks tend to be overloaded leading to call drops and congested networks.
Data taken for the top few operators in Delhi shows while the number of towers has risen 75% over the past couple of years, voice traffic per day has nearly doubled and the data traffic has risen 3.5 times in comparison with China, for instance, Delhi’s top 3 telcos have around 19 times the amount of data loading per MHz of 3G spectrum, and around 11 times the amount of voice traffic.
Removing the towers when operators are rolling out 4G services would lead to a spike in call drops at a time when the industry has managed to bring it down substantially over the past few months. Also, residents in many areas have sought towers to be removed fearing health hazards from high radiation levels. It has however, been well established that electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation levels from telecom towers in India are just a tenth of that prevailing in the European Union. The MoUD notification is a classic case of the left hand of the government not knowing what the right is doing. Already the communications ministry has rightly raised the red flag on it arguing that under the business rules of the Central government, such services come under the purview of the communications ministry. Rather than vacillating over it, the government needs to clear the air on towers at once. It also needs to come up with a one-stop clearance for right of way to roll-out optic fibre networks across the country. That is important for the Digital India plan to succeed.