Even when the government was berating operators for call-drops and the Trai later converted that into monetary penalties, it was obvious the reaction was excessive. For one, Indian telcos have much less spectrum than their global counterparts; two, municipal authorities are making it worse by shutting down towers; three, with EMF radiation levels 10 times more stringent than in countries like the US, Indian telcos have to operate their transceivers at a lower power which, in turn, lowers their coverage; four, the Trai allows a 2% call-drop rate while the monetary penalties assumed a zero-call-drop level which is unattainable in any mobile network in the world; five, with many telcos losing their spectrum and being assigned new frequencies in various auction rounds, they need to recalibrate their networks which can take even up to a year or more. Yet, the Trai went ahead and imposed the penalty, and the telecom companies challenged it before the Supreme Court.
Though it is early days in the case before the country’s top court, what has tripped up the Trai is a technical paper issued by it under a month after the regulations on monetary penalties was issued—the regulation on call-drops was issued on October 16, 2015 while the technical paper was issued on November 10. Since the technical paper makes much the same points made by telecom operators, the SC has asked Trai whether it would like to reconsider its regulation in the light of the technical paper. The paper talks of EMF radiations being more stringent in India and this necessitating ‘lowering of power levels of BTS which may result in shrinkage of the coverage, more importantly indoor coverage’. It talks of the ‘increasing rate of call drops … can also be attributed to spectrum related issues … The Authority has recommended to DoT from time to time, for making additional spectrum available’. In the case of Delhi, the paper talks of the ‘spectrum availability has been nearly constant since 2009 for some operators and has decreased for some operators’, it talks of how for ‘some operators in Delhi, there was a major changeover of frequencies in the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands’ and of the recalibration required to fix this.
Despite this, it says the telcos are ‘mostly complying with the benchmark for the entire service area as a whole …. For the quarter ending March, 2015 and June, 2015, only 3 out of the 184 Licensees are not meeting the benchmarks for this parameter’. It goes on to add that there can be individual pockets where this benchmark is not met—at the level of the individual towers, it says, a fourth of the licensees are not meeting the congestion criterion. But if operators are meeting their obligations at the overall level—in Mumbai or in Delhi-NCR, for instance—how can they be fined for a call drop in Nariman Point or Connaught Place? While the Trai will have to find answers to these questions and the SC will examine whether they hold water, the government also needs to relook the wisdom of its assault on telecom companies in the light of the issues raised by the regulator’s own technical paper. Chances are, though, that with telcos getting more spectrum through the last auction and through trading and being able to recalibrate their networks/frequencies over a period of time, the government/regulator will claim it is their threat that forced telcos to invest more in fixing their networks.