In the continuing saga of customers versus telecom companies, with a hapless regulator in the background, the latest is the issue of deteriorating call quality—aka call drops. The problem of call drops is legitimate and real, and warrants attention and scrutiny from telcos, the regulator and the government in equal measure. Originally restricted to a few pockets of mobile service coverage and a few customers, the unaddressed problem has exploded into a nationwide customer grievance, impacting most of the 900 million mobile users—a testimony, amongst other things, to a regulator apathetic to consumer-related concerns.
A mute and ineffective regulator has created a culture where telcos are unaccountable for service quality and consumer issues, leading to one where investments required in expanding network capacity and quality are being ignored. The recent quarterly audit reports of networks conducted by Trai suggest that the “performance of service providers was fairly satisfactory for network parameters.” Trai’s denial of this issue is quite appalling and hints at an institutional problem, as it seems to have either completely abdicated the responsibility of consumer protection or worse still been captured by commercial corporate interests. The recent utterances of the Vodafone India CEO, in which he dismisses quite blankly the telecom minister’s statements on call drops as not being representative of the entire government’s view, is evidence of this unaccountable culture pervasive amongst telcos. As someone who has been associated with telecom before and someone who has heard it all, the excuses that telcos give for call drops are full of holes.
The government has rightly put the onus and responsibility of ensuring the quality of service on telcos. Predictably, they have tried to slip out of this obligation towards consumers, by referring to problems they face with getting permissions to set up new cell sites and towers. This alibi is used repeatedly to dodge their service obligation.
Regrettably, neither the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) nor the regulator Trai have examined this claim; in fact, no substantive evidence has been advanced to back these claims. The other oft-used alibi is inadequate spectrum—but even this is untenable, since of the 470 MHz available for auction, 11% went unsold in the March 2015 auctions.
In the absence of any data or evidence, this claim of telcos is being accepted blandly and they continue to add customers without any regard to the impact of this on network quality and degradation. Call drops is a direct consequence of overloading networks and under-provisioning of capacity. The spectrum cost is a red herring; you must grow your network as you grow your subscriber base.
Despite what I believe is a bland claim, the government can and must do its best to make installing cell sites and towers easier—with more transparent norms for radiation and the availability of government-owned buildings for cell sites. But the fundamental change that is required is a much firmer and clearer approach of the government and Trai on the issue of Quality of Service (QoS) norms that are to be expected from telcos and become license conditions for them.
Currently, 2% call drops are allowed for wireless telcos—a number that is the range of tolerance of RF networks—but the experience based on consumer feedback/complaints suggests that almost all telcos have registered more than 2% call drops and especially in metros. Trai has reported that Vodafone and Aircel are not meeting the benchmark of less than or equal to 3% for the parameter worst-affected cells having more that 3% traffic channel (TCH) drop. This was stated in Parliament by Ravi Shankar Prasad, in response to a Parliamentary Question on May 9, 2015. With there being no standard definition of a dropped call, it makes any enforcement of the current QoS regime vague.
Thus far, telcos have used this ambiguity to stay on the right side of the rules. This has allowed them to make ludicrous claims, like they are meeting the criteria of less than three call drops per 100 calls, something every reader of this article will confirm as total nonsense.
Call drops are also a route for telcos to bill the same call multiple times, especially since it is estimated that 40% of the telecom base is not on per-second billing. Which means that almost 400 million consumers end up paying multiple times for the same part-completed call. Imagine, if you are a consumer who is not on 1-second billing and you make a call which is interrupted 3-4 times, you may end up paying for between 30-40 seconds per call more every time. While this may seem insignificant for a call, multiplying this 400 million times and then multiplying it 365 days a year and with four calls per day means a lot of money flowing in one direction—from consumers to telcos.
The solution is better engineered and designed networks, which invariably means more efforts in network optimisation by telcos and also more investments in cell sites as customers increase. All this costs money for telcos and there is a natural incentive to cut this short. There is only one way to ensure telcos don’t take a short-cut on this, i.e. Trai and the government establishing a strict QoS norm, with punitive measures for telcos that breach these norms. A dispassionate and neutral assessment of the Indian telecom landscape and the problem of call drops will conclude that it is the absence of this strong QoS norm and almost absent government or Trai initiative that is allowing telcos to short-cut the need to invest in network optimisation and capacity growth.
Digital India is an ambitious vision to transform the country. At the heart of this mission is a fast, reliable and digitally-enabled network that allows consumers the full experience of a digital ecosystem. The call drop situation is, in fact, a loud clarion call for policy-makers that our networks and telcos are way too far from providing the infrastructure required for Digital India.
But there are signs that the government is waking up to this challenge after several years of it being ignored. On July 7, the government ordered the DoT to conduct a special audit of mobile networks and asked Trai to formulate a system of incentives and disincentives for service quality. The audit will be carried out by the Telecom Enforcement Resource and Monitoring cell of the DoT. For combating this menace, we have to adopt a new approach and regulate telcos as it is their obligation to provide high quality network experiences to their consumers. A focus on consumers by the regulator and the DoT, a new QoS including regular audits, and punitive measures to erring telcos is needed to combat call drops and deteriorating network quality.
The author is a Member of Parliament and a technology entrepreneur