Column: Call drops – Blame it on spectrum policy

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Published: September 9, 2015 12:16:32 AM

India’s EMF radiation limits, too, are a significant factor affecting network quality

Call drops are today a favourite topic of conversation and the general view is that matters have been going rapidly downhill over the last two years or so. The situation has become so serious that even the Prime Minister has had to intervene and demand urgent corrective actions. Latest Trai data show over 83% of the operators in such an extremely competitive market (which includes even a government operator) fail to meet the call drop rate standard.

This surely indicates a fundamental malaise affecting all of them and warrants deeper examination.

First, none would dispute that towers are the backbone of mobile communications and, therefore, an important factor for call quality and call drop rate. Over the last year or so, hurdles from local authorities have multiplied for securing desired locations for tower installations, especially in Delhi and Mumbai. Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has therefore to be most warmly lauded for success in his historic initiative—the recent decision facilitating towers on government properties. This needs proper implementation by the states, of course, but is indeed a great step forward and could go a long way to help alleviate operators’ difficulties.

Second, telecom lies indisputably in central jurisdiction, under DoT. Upon examination of the Indian Telegraph Act, in particular, Sections 4,7,10 & 12, clearly indicate that the state or local authorities cannot set unreasonable conditions for tower installations or deny permission on unreasonable grounds and that DoT is the final authority in settling disputes in the matter. Various local authorities are trying to set incorrect/impractical conditions and levy exorbitant charges for tower installation as licence fee and other fees, but it is abundantly clear from the Telegraph Act that no state or local authorities can seek a licence or levy a licence fee for the installation of towers. In fact, the Delhi High Court in its order of 2011 ruled that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) is not empowered to insist upon a licence for the installation of towers and that once this has been held, the question of MCD levying any fee thereof does not arise. The court found no justification whatsoever for the fee so demanded by the MCD. It held that MCD can charge only a fee for the costs of processing the application, etc. It may be noted that the DoT, in its advisory guidelines for towers, has rightly stated that only a nominal administrative charge should be levied.

Experts believe that, rather than depending on mere guidelines, DoT should invoke Section 7 of the Indian Telegraph Act to formulate clear and uniform rules for installation of towers which would have to be mandatorily followed all over the country.

Apart from the hurdles put up by the local authorities, in many cases, towers are being pulled down or not allowed to come up because of unfounded concerns, viz. the possible harmful effects of electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation exposure. In 2008, the DoT introduced EMF limits for towers and cell phones, in line with the World Health Organization-recommended ICNIRP (International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection) limits.

These limits are the standard in a vast majority of nations and have a built-in margin of safety of as much as 50 times! The WHO has clearly endorsed the ICNIRP limit and stated that this is an adequately protective standard for all countries and that there is no evidence to warrant further lowering.

Cell phones emit extremely low EMF radiation, generally a small fraction of a watt, several fold below the ICNIRP limit. It is important to understand that the EMF radiation exposure from towers is quite low in intensity. As WHO pointed out in 2013, the EMF radiation from towers is about a thousand times lower than that from mobile phones.
Despite the above, the government of India reduced, on a precautionary basis, the tower EMF radiation limits in 2012 to one-tenth of the ICNIRP. This was done purely to address public concern in some areas though the lowering was not warranted as per evidence. Two or three other significant fall-out effects of this unwarranted action need to be considered here.

One, to be at a tenth of the ICNIRP limit, obviously, Indian operators’ signals would have to be much weaker. This could be an important cause for the worsening call drop situation since the last two years. Two, due to weaker signal, the handsets have to work much harder to catch the signal. They would become hotter thus and result in more EMF radiation exposure, albeit well within the specified limits for cell phones. Again, such running causes handsets to have reduced battery life. Thus, our one-tenth ICNIRP is quite possibly causing more harm than good, viz. call drops, lower battery life and somewhat increased exposure from handset (although well within limits).

Nowhere else in the world running and well-performing licensees, with settled and stable networks serving millions of customers, have had their “in-use spectrum” taken away and replaced with that of completely different frequencies. Extensive retuning and optimising of networks, involving several thousands of towers, was an inevitable consequence. This would have had impacts on network/call quality that could take a long time to resolve. Trai had understood this and clearly advised in 2010 itself that operators would need about two years to make adjustments for the change. This did not happen, and we are probably suffering the consequences thereof. No other country has invited massive network disruptions by not extending/renewing licenses. Call drops, therefore, are not a surprising result. Clearly, the resolution of the call-drops issue is not going to be a cakewalk.

The author is honorary fellow of the Institution of Engineering & Technology (London) and a consultant. Views are personal

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