India must ensure that enough spectrum is available for both mobile broadband and voice services
Trai has finally taken a remedial step on call drops, but this is unlikely to cure the ill which is a growing threat that could kill off India’s digital advantage.
The Trai consultation paper in this regard notes the following: “Why calls are dropped? Call drops in mobile networks occur due to a variety of reasons. The main reasons for dropped calls are as below: (i) lack of radio coverage; (ii) radio interference between neighbouring cells; (iii) imperfections in the functioning of the network (such as failed handover or cell-reselection attempts); (iv) capacity constraints and overload of the different elements of the network (such as cells); (v) antenna-related problems; (vi) transmission media-related problems; (vii) unauthorized repeaters, etc. Apart from the afore-mentioned network related reasons, the TSPs have contended that (i) spectrum crunch and (ii) resistance of resident welfare associations (RWAs) against installation of towers in residential colonies have resulted in increase in Call Drop Rates. The TSPs have argued that they are facing shortage of spectrum due to high growth of subscribers; besides there are delays in allocation of additional spectrum by the Government. Regarding the resistance of the RWAs, the TSPs have contended that the RWAs are not letting new mobile towers to come up in residential colonies and are insisting on removal of the existing ones”.
Given the support voiced by the government on increased installation of towers, the problem is surely going to ease.
The number of towers today, except in a few areas, is also adequate. Efficient tower usage assumes unlimited and very liberal tower and spectrum sharing. Some sharing has been announced, but we continue with our ancient and restrictive approach. This has to change for more effective sharing.
Let us look at the published data on the main reasons for call drops, before we jump to conclusions. India has had a phenomenal increase in the number of mobile users. Our mobile numbers increased 100 times during the period 2002 to 2015. It is extremely important that the operators get appropriate amount of spectrum in totality and also per unit of population to cater to the enormous increase in traffic. I do not want to go into endless debate on the appropriate amount. International comparison clearly shows the inadequacy in India.
Fortunately, the spectrum available is the same all over the world, and the equipment used by the operators is also similar. There is enough evidence to suggest that competition and fast growth has forced all operators to go for the best equipment in India.
The quality of service today primarily gets compromised due to the minuscule spectrum allotted to the Indian operators/per million population. We have also been very inefficient in spectrum farming, leading to poor utilisation of small chunks of spectrum. Regarding the total amount of spectrum allotted to telecom operators, it is around 120 MHz in India while it is around 300 MHz in many foreign countries. All debate about security requirements, inefficient equipment, etc, cannot draw us away from the obvious conclusion that we have given limited spectrum, and haven’t got it back from heritage and inefficient users, and have not refarmed spectrum. Other countries having done it, we all know this is eminently possible. Even they have their internal/external security problems, our alibi against proper allocation.
Another problem assuming significance is the increasing amount of spectrum being used for more profitable data services. I am sure we do not want to curtail this usage. An empirical formula suggests that once the number of smartphones goes beyond 25%, the country is poised to enter the era of data explosion. We are today at 17%, and will get into data explosion phase in next year or in two years, depending on the quality of service. While improved quality of service on smart phones and their explosive growth may be good news for Digital India, it is a very disturbing trend for ‘call drops’, more spectrum from the minuscule amounts being taken away by data services, would not lead to call-drops only, but to call- stoppages, and that too when, according to most analysts internationally, the present government’s most ambitious and brilliantly conceptualised—and likely to be the most disruptive (a very welcome change for growth)—Digital India initiative, along with the Smart Cities initiative, would start operating, even as increased usage of internet of things becomes the norm.
We also have to remember that after spectrum started being intensively used in telecommunication globally in the mid-1980s. At the time, spectrum requirement was very limited. The requirement has increased manifold, with character of the network and usage totally changing, particularly in India.
* After voice, it started being used for internet.
* In early-1980s, most of the data/broadband was carried on fixed lines. Mobile broadband came later.
* In countries other than India, when broadband started being used, the network grew by increasing fixed lines.
India was the only country which then, as even now, had only 3% fixed line telephones (capable of transmitting broadband). Consequently, mobile broadband became far more important than in other countries. It was around the same time mobile broadband technologies started stabilising and being intensively used.
* Even at this time, none knew that data/broadband would be used for spectrum guzzling videos, movies and for enormous voice/data traffic on spectrum circuits, and newer technologies/applications every day. The problem today in the world and particularly in India is therefore that more spectrum is required, and we have to develop better technologies for more efficient usage. As an example, US and other advanced countries depends on far greater sharing of spectrum and are trying to develop dynamic spectrum sharing, use of more of free spectrum with such technologies, and a new technology which would make the entire spectrum dynamically shared between the operators. The US president has recently appointed a committee to investigate the commercial possibilities of such deployment.
* Convergence of networks and regulations is a must for optimal utilisation of the resources, and also for implementation of newer technologies, e.g., internet of things for an efficient and competitive Make-in-India programme in high-tech precision industries. This can only be implemented in a truly converged network, and would lead to an explosive growth in new high-tech manufacturing systems. Also, more importantly, linkage of cross-sectoral content that can be converted to services such as health, education, governance, in addition to ongoing entertainment, social engagement, etc. For efficient operation, this will need converged network. To encourage technological innovation, light touch regulations are required and the government must monitor only for major violations, e.g., security concerns/ lapses. All this would be possible in a changed and modified version of the Convergence Bill, 2001, earlier drafted by the legal luminary, Fali Nariman, and supervised by the then law minister, Arun Jaitley.
The author is former chairman, Trai