Tower availability and spectrum are key constraints
With over 900 million mobile phone subscribers facing call drops several times a day, it is not surprising that telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad should bring up the issue as often as he has. Part of the reason, of course, is that Indian telcos have very little spectrum compared to their overseas counterparts—13-14MHz versus a global average of 40MHz. Indeed, while telcos spent Rs 1.2 lakh crore for spectrum in the latest auction, 75% of it was spent on re-purchasing of spectrum they already held. Which is why, it is unfair to argue, as Prasad has, that telcos now have a lot more spectrum to be able to handle the call drops. But he has done well to raise the issue of the shortage of telecom towers, and to promise to help out where he can. In response to the telcos’ complaint that they were finding it difficult to add towers due to the fear that people have of the radiation from telecom towers, Prasad said India’s radiation norms were 10 times more stringent than international ones—the minister also did well to say “if anybody suggests tangible evidence or adverse effect on mobile tower radiation, I will look into it … it is not dangerous”. Urging telcos to create more in-building solutions, he has promised to speak to state governments to ensure that mobile towers are installed on government and PSU buildings.
This is critical since, in places, where it matters most, telcos don’t have enough towers. For a leading operator in Delhi, for instance, the number of towers available in Lutyens Delhi is around half that is required—for the top 6 cities, the shortage of towers in critical areas is around 800. Indeed, while Prasad is worried about call drops right now, with a shortage of both spectrum and towers, internet speeds in Digital India will slow down to a crawl on even supposed high-speed networks. Data taken for the top few operators in Delhi show that while the number of cellular towers has increased by 75% over the past two years, the amount of voice traffic per day has nearly doubled and the data traffic by 3.5 times—in comparison with China, for instance, Delhi’s top 3 telcos have around 19 times the amount of data loading per MHz of 3G spectrum, and around 11 times the amount of voice traffic. Analysis by Ericsson shows, users of 3G have just a 55% chance of getting more than 1Mbps of data speeds as compared to a 90% probability of getting such speeds in most developed countries. While getting more towers and spectrum is critical, till the government lowers annual levies and lowers spectrum costs by dramatically adding to supply, telcos won’t have the financial muscle to invest in the necessary infrastructure, including the in-building solutions Prasad wants them to. The ball largely remains in the government’s court.