Call drops: Dialogue lost on a distorted line

Telecom operators are up in arms against the sectoral regulator Trai’s suggestion of compensating users for call drops, asserting that it is “not the correct approach and will not resolve the problem”. Operators including Airtel and Vodafone, in their submissions to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai), have said that since 100 per cent coverage is not possible in a radio network, the question of compensation does not arise. Arguing that there is no international precedence for the same except for Colombia, they have sought more spectrum and uniform policy for setting up towers to resolve the issue of call drops, which has drawn criticism from even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has called for an urgent resolution of the matter. Last month, SBI chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya joined the debate on frequent call drops, warning that bad connectivity may hinder the process of financial inclusion and digital banking.
So, while those like Airtel have moved pre-paid customers to per-second billing as a stop-gap fix, experts say that the problem is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. This is because on one hand infrastructure development by operators has not kept pace with growth in subscriber base, they have also not done enough to ensure a smooth handover when one moves from one circle to another. Further, spectrum availability continues to remain an issue.
Trai had earlier this month suggested that the customers should be compensated for calls which get dropped within five seconds. According to data provided by Trai for the quarter ended March, 71 per cent of mobile consumers across the country were on per-second billing. However, in terms of total outgoing calls, 41 per cent of total voice consumption happens on a per-minute pulse.
Long-pending problem
Though the increased focus on call drops began only a few months back, the problem has persisted for long. According to Trai, there has been a two-fold jump in call drops on 2G networks and by 65 per cent on 3G networks in a one-year period. As per Standards of Quality of Service of Basic Telephone Service (Wireline) and Cellular Mobile Telephone Regulations, 2009, call drop rate, averaged over a calendar month, of any telephone company should not exceed 2 per cent.
India had 868.64 million active wireless subscribers as on May 31, 2015, while total telephone subscribers stood at 1,002.05 million, up 0.23 per cent month-on-month. The size of the call drop problem can be gauged from the fact that of the total calls made to the National Consumer Helpline (NCH), 18.93 per cent were telecom-related. The calls and data analysed by the NCH for July and August showed that while maximum complaints were product-related, comprising 22.4 per cent of the overall complaint calls made, telecom was a close second, followed by e-commerce at 17.03 per cent. The complaint calls made for the telecom sector related to broadband/internet (10.92 per cent), inflated bills and overcharging (8.42 per cent), unfair deductions (7.09 per cent) and network problem (6.51per cent).
The government has taken a series of actions, including asking operators to disclose details of number of subscribers they can satisfactorily serve, including warning of penal action if the problem persists. All the same, telecom service providers, who have been under fire, have said that the problem persists due to reasons beyond their control such as spectrum shortage and sealing of towers.
Trai, however, is not convinced. It has said that the telecos have not been making enough expenditure to keep pace with the growth in subscribers, clear from the fact that while the investment made in the network infrastructure in wireless access service segment rose by 4.6 per cent in 2012-13, the minutes of usage grew by 6.8 per cent.
Mahesh Uppal, telecom regulatory expert and director, Com First (India), said that the issue of spectrum shortage and towers is not getting the kind of attention it deserves.
The reasons
Recently, CEOs of top six telecos dialed the telecom ministry reasoning that since with every 40 sites sealed, there is an average of 20 per cent increase in call drops, de-sealing of towers will help in resolving the problem. Listing the reasons, industry body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said that issuance of fresh spectrum, actions by various state bodies/municipal corporations, shortage of spectrum amid surging data traffic, restrictions imposed by states and municipalities for wireless sites for erecting towers in non-commercial areas, hurdles in installing mobile towers in residential areas because of radiation issues, and issues pertaining to Right of Way (RoW) for fibre were the major hindrances.
The COAI further said that call drop is not a pan-India issue and is restricted to some select areas wherein lack of site availability, lack of RoW for in-building solutions and non-operational towers are prevalent. The problem, however, is not a sudden development. “It was already in the making for some time in certain pockets. The concentration of mobile is far more in urban areas. In these pockets, operators knew that they were already choked or choking. However, while they kept on adding subscribers, there was no significant attempt to keep pace by building infrastructure. The sealing of towers by municipalities was the last straw,” Neeraj Jain, senior director, Deloitte in India, said. Compared to developed countries that have maximum 4-5 operators, India has over 10 operators, which has led to rock bottom prices. This, along with high spectrum auction prices, stressed the balance sheets of firms, apparently making it difficult for them to invest in infrastructure, he said.
“When you move out of your circle to another, smooth handover is not happening because the channels are already pre-occupied. In contrast, in developed countries handover is smooth, contiguous spectrum is higher. Tower sharing has helped to some extent but then again the sealing of towers has caused a problem. This has become a vicious circle,” Jain added. Further, in countries like the UK, operators have 2-3 times more spectrum than Indian operators to serve one-third of India’s population, Romal Shetty, head of telecom, KPMG India, said.
The way forward
For immediate relief, Jain said that the government needs to de-seal towers and give speedy licences for the same. There are close to 4,00,000 towers in India and it is estimated to increase at a CAGR of just 3 per cent over next 4-5 years, according to a Deloitte India report. The COAI has said that some 1,00,000 sites will be required in the next 24 months. Experts said that operators also need to step up spending on infrastructure. Further it is also important that the fear of radiations from telecom towers is dealt with. “It is exaggerated because India’s norms are much tougher than over 90 per cent of countries. Operators need to set up more towers, lower in height and connected with optical fibre. This will improve quality, reduce dependence on spectrum and reduce the radiations too,” Uppal said.