The case of dropped calls in India

Mr. Bhupesh Bhandari (BB) in ‘Business Standard’ offers his ‘take‘ on the problem of ubiquitous call-drop in India. His analysis points to more technological issues within telecom firms and diversion of spectrum by telecom operators. Then, we had Mr. T.V. Ramachandran (TVR) offering his opinion in ‘Financial Express’ on the matter. He blamed it on the spectrum policy and the difficulties in putting up towers. But, BB’s article said the following on towers in Delhi, for example:

Some say telecom operators have deliberately avoided putting up towers in order to shore up their profits. (A rooftop tower can cost Rs 10-15 lakh and a ground-based tower Rs 25-30 lakh). Had that been the case, tower density in the country would have been way below the global average. It isn’t: Delhi has 2.2 towers per square kilometre, which compares well with Singapore (also 2.2) and Shanghai (2.1).

He goes on to state:

36 per cent of dropped calls take place in good network areas, 30 per cent of inability-to-call events happen during off-peak hours, and 40 per cent of call-receive failures happen post-midnight. This clearly points towards suboptimal utilisation of spectrum and tower infrastructure.

On spectrum, T.V. Ramachandran has this to say:

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.

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.

There is a way in which both BB and TVR could be right. There could be a sub-optimal utilisation of spectrum but it could be due to the issues highlighted by TVR and reproduced above. In other words, government decisions in response to the telecom scam and judicial rulings could have resulted in sub-optimal utilisation of spectrum. TVR’s article suggests that this could be a legacy issue from 2010. Courtesy of the UPA government.

Again, BB  could be right that towers per sq. km are not lower in Delhi compared to Singapore or Shanghai but it could be that towers are under-utilised because of the emission norms that India adopted in 2012 (again, courtesy of the UPA government).

Interesting and important observations from TVR:

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!……….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………..Two or three other significant fall-out effects of this unwarranted action need to be considered here. [Emphasis mine]

One, to be at a tenth of the ICNIRP limit, obviously, Indian operators’ signals would have to be much weaker……….Two, due to weaker signal, the handsets have to work much harder to catch the signal……….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).

We are not done yet. A friend wrote me the following:

Companies have algorithms that make calls drop. Even in per second billing, must realise that there are moments of wastage when reconnecting: Hello? Sorry, call cut gaya. Achha… is about 6 seconds wasted.

Therefore, as usual, there is a fair bit of sharing of responsibility that needs to happen here.

The government has made two important moves:

(1) Spectrum trading between telecom firms is now allowed.

(2) The Department of Telecom and Urban Development Ministry have agreed in-principle to permit installation of mobile towers at government buildings, a move that may reduce the problem of call drops.

These two appear to be significant and should help improve matters.

What about the decision taken in 2012 to drastically lower the EMF radiation limit by 90% when international norms already had a cushion of over 50 times, if TVR is right? What about the quality of spectrum allotted to telecom operators?

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