Given how his dream of Digital India will collapse if telcos are not able to provide seamless services, it is not surprising prime minister Narendra Modi has asked officials as to what is being done to fix call drops, and to ensure the problem in voice connections does not extend to data. Modi has not blamed telcos, and communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has been very supportive by rubbishing allegations of tower radiation and in helping telcos’ to put up towers on government buildings – but, by and large, the official position is that telcos need to get their act together. Which is why, a Trai consultation is a good idea as it will bring out all the facts – while the Trai itself will give global perspective in its consultation paper, telcos and others will add to this during the open house process.
There are various issues here, all connected. Prasad is right in helping telcos get permissions to put up towers as there are obvious ‘dark spots’ in most networks – in Lutyens Delhi, for instance, telcos have around half the towers they need, though it is not clear if Prasad can help telcos here. But if you leave aside these ‘dark spots’ where more towers are needed, there are just so many towers telcos can put – put any more, and the signals emanating from each will interfere with one another; indeed major cities like Delhi, Shanghai and Singapore all have around the same tower density at around 2.2 towers per sq km. Once telcos have the optimum number of telecom towers, what is vital is the amount of spectrum available. If a Bharti Airtel, for instance, had 10MHz of 900MHz spectrum and 10MHz of 1800MHz spectrum instead of the 6MHz and 7MHz that it does (respectively), it would need 4,000-4,200 towers instead of the 6,000 or so it has today. If, on the other hand, it had 5MHz of 900MHz and 15MHz of 1800MHz, it would need around 5,500 towers – in a nutshell, if there is more spectrum in a lower frequency, a telco needs less towers.
There is, then, the issue of ‘loading’ or the amount of voice/data traffic that is being run through the same system—either by way of per tower or by way of per MHz of spectrum. A top telco in Delhi will be dealing with 3.8 million hours of voice traffic per day right now versus 4.6 million in Shanghai and 0.6 million in Singapore. Given the number of sites and spectrum, a Delhi telco will be handling 49 hours per MHz per site—the comparable number is 6.5 for Shanghai and 8.9 for Singapore. For data, this becomes 3.4 GB per MHz per site versus 0.2 for Shanghai and 2 for Singapore. It is all very well for the Twitterati to say telcos must not take more subscribers if their networks can’t handle the traffic—our page-1 lead story suggests the telecom ministry is thinking of asking telcos to give information to the public along these lines—but if telcos don’t do this, they will not be able to pay the government for the spectrum they have bid for. This, of course, is the telcos’ problem, not that of the government. But if the telcos are not able to deliver voice and data services in a seamless manner—and they will not unless Modi and Prasad ensure there is a lot more spectrum available, and at reasonable prices—it will be Digital India’s problem. That’s where the prime minister and the telecom minister need to take a holistic look at the issue and its ramifications.