Lack of adequate mobile towers, network reconfiguration by telcos likely to cause problems
Talk to any mobile subscriber and a common complaint is about bad quality of service. Unlike the era of landline phones, when bad quality meant poor voice, a bad connection, not getting a dial tone for hours or a cross-connection, bad quality of service today means frequent call drops. Any random survey would reveal that not a single call gets completed without at least two call drops. Needless to say, apart from cost, call drops are irritating as well.
Though the country’s mobile subscriber base has swelled to over 900 million, and sleek and glitzy handsets are unveiled every other day, the harsh truth is that call drops are here to stay. In fact, if you happen to be in Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, chances are that beginning next month, the problem could just get worse.
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Rajan Mathews, director general of Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), an apex body of all mobile operators barring Reliance Communications and Tata Teleservices, says the major reason for increasing call drops is the inadequate number of towers. Operators are willing to put up more towers, but it is becoming difficult to find locations for them. The scare of electromagnetic radiation, which is perceived to be a health hazard, also possibly causing cancer, is resulting in people refusing to let out their premises for installing towers.
“Take the case of Delhi-NCR, the city requires at least 50,000 towers, but it has only 34,000,” Mathews points out. On a national level, against a requirement of 6,25,000 towers, there are about 4,25,000.
The scare of electromagnetic radiation, which telecom operators and bodies like COAI are countering with educational campaigns and roundtables with experts, is so big that owners of premises where towers are currently located are refusing to renew the lease as and when it expires. “This problem, coupled with the fact that it is anyway difficult to get permission from civic agencies like New Delhi Municipal Committee or the Delhi Development Authority because of delays, compounds the problem,” says Mathews.
He feels one solution could be that the government allows setting up of towers in government buildings with a single-window clearance. The other demand is for more spectrum — the average spectrum holding per operator in India is 12-15 MHz compared to 40-45 MHz in developed nations. According to him, the prescribed radiation levels from towers in India are one-tenth the global norm.
Why Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are going to face more problems next month is because in these cities, the spectrum held by the big two operators — Bharti and Vodafone — is undergoing a change.
On November 30, the 20-year licence agreement expires in the circles of Delhi and Kolkata for Bharti Airtel, and Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata for Vodafone. The two operators have their networks in these circles, built primarily on the 900-MHz spectrum band. However, in the auctions held in February, they got mixed spectrum in the bands of 1,800 and 900 MHz. Therefore, the two operators would need to reconfigure their networks, which would take another three-six months. Further, Bharti Airtel, which earlier did not have spectrum in 900 Mhz in Mumbai, has won airwaves in the circle in this band and now needs to set up a new network in this band.
Since the department of telecommunications allocated the spectrum to these companies very late — early this month — they would need to change their networks live, which would lead to disruption in services.
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chairman Rahul Khullar has already asked DoT to take measures to ensure no inconvenience is caused to consumers.
“The Authority is seriously concerned that this delay on the part of the wireless planning and coordination cell in assigning spectrum in the 1,800 MHz band might lead to a partial breakdown of services offered by these two operators, especially in Delhi, the national capital. Both these operators have around 20 million subscribers in Delhi, which constitute around 45% of the total subscriber base of Delhi licensed area. It is apprehended that in December there will be a serious deterioration in the quality of service to these subscribers because of call drops, network congestion, etc,” Khullar has written to the DoT secretary.
* There are only 34,000 towers in Delhi whereas at least 50,000 are required
* On an all-India basis 625,000 towers are required but we have only 425,000
* Reason: Health scare because of radiation, cumbersome process for nod to set up towers
* Average per operator spectrum holding too low at 12-15 MHz against 40-45 MHz in developed nations