Deliberate Network Call Drops need to be Scrutinized

The following article is based on my own interpretation of the said events. Any material borrowed from published and unpublished sources has been appropriately referenced. I will bear the sole responsibility for anything that is found to have been copied or misappropriated or misrepresented in the following post.

Bodhisattwa Bhadra, EMBA 2015-18, Vinod Gupta School of Management, IIT Kharagpur.

 

Everyone hates the increasingly frequent dropped calls, but no one seems able to do anything about them. Mobile phones work using radio waves in the frequency range of 300 MHz and 3,000 MHz. But the entire range is not available for use. Critically, the lower the number, the better the quality of transmission. It makes sense for a telecom company to pitch for a 900 MHz band instead of 2,100 MHz or even 1,800 MHz. Since limited space is available in each band, companies jostle for more space in the better (or lower) bands. If a company has too little of the better bands, the quality of voice service drops. It also drops if the number of customers rises. India has 961 million mobile phone subscribers, the most in the world after China.

13 service operators , out of which 7 is prevailing in PAN India level, are slicing up the available bands into smaller parcels. There is little comparable international data, but India’s telecom regulator concedes it is possibly the highest among mature telecom markets. Towers act as boosters that help radio waves travel better, and are a necessary part of the telecom architecture in any country. There are approximately 5,50,000 towers in India, and industry associations reckon another 1,00,000 are needed. The lower radio bands need fewer towers to travel longer distances, so when telecom companies offer richer services like 3G or 4G, they have to be at higher frequencies (2,100 MHz or 2,300 MHz instead of 900 MHz), which need more tower support. Permission to erect a tower is given by the municipal body on a case-by-case basis. But it is not only the permission from government for new erection but can be something else.

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is examining whether mobile operators are minting money by engineering phone calls to drop midway. Chairman , Mr. R.S. Sharma , has quoted ” We are coming out with a consultation paper on call drops. We will consult all stakeholders on various facets of call drops.”

The regulator is also examining whether there are any tariff plans of the service providers wherein call drops actually incentivize or benefit the companies.

Mr. Gopal Vittal, MD and CEO of Bharti Airtel ( India and South Asia), had recently said that about 95 per cent plans were seconds- based. Since call drops are the most common in high-congestion areas, interruptions tend to shorten the call and, to that extent, reduce the average revenue per user per minute.

If it’s measured in seconds, the telecom company gains nothing — no matter how many times the connection snaps, billing resumes at the same rate.

However, TRAI Secretary, Mr. Rakesh Garg said there were certain plans wherein customers got some free minutes and the billing was minute- based, which needed to be examined.

The industry has refuted charges of deliberate call drops and the companies have instead put the blame on the issue that there is a shortage of spectrum in key bands like 900 MHz and 1,800 MHz. Call drops peak in high-congestion areas, typically city centers. This means there is an unequal spread of traffic across the spectrum, which cannot be made good by diverting traffic on to an adjacent, underutilized spectrum. That would be a reflected light signal, with gaps in the voice akin to international calls at times.

The Telecom firms claim they have spent Rs 1,29,000 cr ($ 22.4 bn) on airwaves, other investment in 2015 . But the government has hit the operators for the lack of investment in networks leading to call drops, the government said they could not escape the responsibility of meeting standards as it was their basic service obligation.

The operators have said about 7,000- 10,000 sites have been locked or shut down across major cities and have sought a uniform national policy for the installation of towers.

Rejecting the reasons given by the operators, such as shutting down of towers and radiation fears, the government has said all these factors existed earlier too, but the problem has worsened in the last seven months.

Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi , has directed officials to address the problem of call drops.

Reviewing the status of mobile connectivity in the country, Mr. Modi expressed serious concern over the issue of call drops, which he observed, directly affected the common man. He asked officials to take urgent steps to resolve the problem by ensuring that the problems in voice connectivity did not extend to data connectivity.

Meanwhile, telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad asked operators to optimize their networks and promised full support on policy front, including on the installation of towers.

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