The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has initiated an extensive exercise for tackling call drops, which will finally lead to the creation of a transparency portal on which customers will be able to find out the quality of service of telecom operators in a particular area. Trai Chairman RS Sharma explains the plan to Santosh Tiwari and Rishi Raj, which includes the release of a study soon on the exact reasons for call drops, and the launch of an awareness campaign with the government and operators to bust the myth that radiation from telecom towers causes cancer. He agrees that the lack of spectrum is also one of the causes for call drops and therefore the regulator and the government are committed to increase its supply. Sharma adds that the proposal of telecom companies compensating customers directly for call drops will be dropped if it is found after the consultation that there is no need for this. Here are the excerpts:
Trai has given details of investment made by the telecom companies in infrastructure sans what they spent on acquiring spectrum in its consultation paper. Is there an ideal ratio between spectrum and non-spectrum investment?
Investment is not linearly correlated with customers but it is a broad indicator of the quality of services. Burden on the system has increased and therefore the capacity should also have increased.
Telecom companies should have put up more infrastructure to take care of increased services. I am told that infrastructure at a number of places is overstretched. I think the public has the right to know which operator’s capacity is overstretched. The spectrum is one of the factors in this whole recipe—and an important ingredient—but to say that there is a lack of spectrum so it is not happening is incorrect. You (telecom operators) had the same spectrum, it has increased somewhat now, and you were running it successfully. Now invest in infrastructure to handle additional burden.
After finalising this paper, you must have got a clearer picture about the reasons for call drops—like you said spectrum is one of the reasons and then is the lack of investment in infrastructure. So how far investment in infrastructure can improve the situation because you are not going to give them spectrum immediately?
There are various reasons and these will be clear once I come out with our second consultation paper in about two weeks’ time, which will analyse the data in a granular manner. Then I will be able to understand it fully. Reasons could be many—inadequacy of infrastructure, inadequacy of spectrum, or towers are not being put up or they have been dislodged at some places etc. There are also misconceptions such as radiation from towers causes cancer—this is completely unfounded; it’s a myth, there is no study suggesting this. Towers in India consume one-tenth of electricity as compared to the standards set globally, so the fear is baseless. We now want that Trai, the government and operators together go to the people with scientific studies to create awareness that there is no deleterious effect of these towers.
The interesting fact is that if you have lesser number of towers, the emissions are more. I am not saying it is harmful, but the fact is that the more the number of towers, it is better in all respects.
Can we get segregated data between spectrum and non-spectrum spend? Since inception, the industry has spent Rs 7.5 lakh crore including that on spectrum…
I am aware of this. The fallacy of the argument is that the government has charged high price for spectrum but it is the industry which bid for this; now you can’t say that because I have paid so much for spectrum, I can’t provide services. If you thought this could become unviable, then you should not have bid. These are excuses. You should have calculated. There can’t be excuses for quality of services and customers must be compensated if quality of service parameters aren’t met. It’s a simple point.
I agree that there should be more spectrum. Trai has requested the government for releasing more spectrum because you have Digital India. We will work with operators in putting up more towers. It is true that at times it is out of control of operators to put up towers; they need help in this and we will help them.
This will happen only when you facilitate clearances for putting up towers…
I agree. This is why the minister has allowed them to put up towers on government buildings. However, you can’t say that because you cannot put up towers, so you will not improve your services.
So you are basically suggesting that let the operators take one step and Trai will take two…
It is not like that. There is no precondition. I am just saying that spectrum is not the only reason and Trai has maintained there should be more spectrum. And that the power part is also a problem in bigger cities as RWAs say that radiation from towers causes cancer. We are ready to work on this together. The issue of compensating customers for call drops is orthogonal to these factors. It is a simple fact that customers are not getting the services they should get, and one of the ways to ameliorate their situation is to compensate them. In this case, Trai has thought that rather than asking operators to pay up to Trai, the sufferers (customers) should be compensated directly, and it is possible to do that; you know whose call has got dropped.
How will you decide which is a call drop and which is a normal disconnection?
Call drops happen because of several reasons. Some drops are initiated by the system. There are other situations when the call quality is so bad that the customer disconnects the call and dials again. This is call drop initiated by the consumer. This part can’t be taken care of. We are only taking those call drops which happen because of the system. If it is a minute plan and a call is dropped after 3 minutes and 40 seconds, then you charge the customer only for three minutes.
What is your plan from here on to tackle this issue?
We have asked for views on the consultation paper till September 21. These will be put up on the Trai website for counter comments for a week. Then there will be open houses to discuss the views and then a decision will be taken. If the consultation paper brings out overwhelmingly the feeling that there is no need for compensation to be provided, then we will go that way. Our process would be democratic and transparent.
Meanwhile, the paper on quality of services to find out the reasons in a granular manner will be issued. It’ll help all the stakeholders. Going forward, we want to create an institutional mechanism—a transparency portal in a sense—where customers will be able to see what are the quality of service parameters operator-wise in a particular area. It will be a dashboard which anybody can use. These parameters will be based on objective criteria; they will not be subjective.
There is a view that if operators start disclosing network capacity, then those having more spare capacity because of lower subscriber base (new players) will benefit? The fear expressed by the industry is that it might lead to unfair competitive advantage for some.
You have number portability. That will take care of this. Ultimately, consumers will be able to choose a better operator. What is wrong with that? Transparency will help everybody. Whether it helps one or goes against the other is not something that the regulator should look at.