Call drops: Dealing with the menace or just shifting goal posts?

by Prasad Krishna last modified Jul 01, 2016 04:45 PM
It is nothing short of an irony that the world’s second largest mobile user market that boasts of being the world’s fastest growing economy is plagued by poor infrastructure and overloaded networks to an extent that many callers are cut off even before they can finish a sentence. The fault in India’s much-acclaimed telecom revolution is a questioning, frequent phenomenon called “call drops”. There have been several signature campaigns and media pressure demanding that the government and telecom companies get their heads together to fix this raging demon of a problem. However, all they have been treated with is lip service and nothing more.

The article was published by India TV News on June 29, 2016


So, on one hand we have Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claiming that the call drop problem is improving as telecom companies are installing towers, and on the other is TRAI that shows reports that operators like Aircel, Vodafone and Idea are using call drop masking technology incorrectly to fudge the data on call drops. Not long ago, we had Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself take up the issue and we saw a flurry of allegations and counter allegations flying between the government and the telecom companies on where the fault actually lies.

While the government claimed it had freed enough spectrum to fix network issues and blamed the companies for not investing enough in the infrastructure, the telcos hit back at the government saying they were facing regulatory hurdles in setting up of towers because of environmental issues posed by regulation. In all, we kept going in circles and the change promised remained as elusive as its perception.

Reality is that for cell phone users in India, call drop continues as a common phenomenon and figures released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) attest to this claim. According to TRAI, the figures have doubled in the last one year and the worst affected cell has more than 3% TCH drop (traffic channel call drop) rate, which is four times higher than the permitted limit. Quality of Service Regulations has allowed service providers a 2 per cent allowance of call drops on the basis of averaging call drops per month.

TRAI has recently conducted Audit and assessment of Quality of Service being provided by service providers through independent agencies for Cellular Mobile Telephone Service, Basic Service and Broadband Services in many states. In Ahmedabad all the operators have failed to meet the call drop rate benchmark of less that 2% expect Airtel 2G. Also in Mumbai most of the operators have not met the less that 2% call drop benchmark except Airtel 2G and 3G and Vodafone 2G.

Many other states have gone through this drive test and have failed.

This begs us to put up a serious question in the interest of the more than 103.518 cr users who shell out money for pathetic services - Is the problem actually being resolved or are we, the consumers, being taken for a royal ride?

Before we set out to give you a complete idea on the state of affairs and where we stand in terms of actually working towards fixing this problem, a look at some basics first to put things in context.

Telecom

What is call drop?

A call drop technically signifies the service provider’s incapability to maintain a call, either incoming or outgoing, once it has been properly established. In India, call drops are a performance indicator for the country’s telecom networks. In many cities, mobile users have to rush from one room to another or drive around neighborhoods to find better signals or better voice quality.

Call drops now figure among the top customer issues with telcos in several Indian cities. There is very little transparency on call drop data but it can be said that most companies have multiple sites where the call drop incidence is much above the set 2 percent limit. New Delhi has been particularly hit after city authorities cracked down and sealed unlicensed mobile towers.

The problem had increased so much that India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the industry regulator, had specified that telecom service providers need to compensate users for dropped calls. The regulator said that the consumers will be paid Re.1 per call up to 3 dropped calls per day, only to be turned down by the Supreme Court, rendering the TRAI decision null and void.

Telecom companies had cried foul over the directive, firstly by saying that the regulator had no authority to levy such penalty and secondly, by saying that it wasn't possible to segregate the reasons for call drops.

SC gave a 99-page judgment and said that the regulation appears to be meant only to penalise telcos. The judgment highlighted various flaws in the ruling by the Delhi high court which upheld TRAIs regulation.

It further upheld the 2% exemption extended to service providers with regard to call drops and said the regulation would have penalized them despite it.

“A penalty that is imposed ‘without any reason’ either as to the number of call drops made being three, and only to the calling consumer, ‘far from balancing the interest of consumers and service providers’, is manifestly arbitrary, not being based on any factual data or reason,” the court said.

A ‘towering’ menace

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 think  another 1,00,000 are needed. The lower radio bands need less towers to  travel longer distances, so when telecom companies offer 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.

Call drops occur due to several reasons.

Cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, Jaipur and Patna have less towers than needed. Civic authorities across the country have shut down a total of around 10,000 towers and an additional 12,000 towers cannot be used due to various reasons.

Telecom companies are reluctant to share towers. This is because they are fixed investments by subsidiaries of telecom companies. Permission to erect a tower is given by the municipal body, but no uniform standards or procedures exist here.

The setting up of boosters on buildings remains a task, and permission has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Things could improve if telecom connectivity were seen as being similar to water and power supply, and developers were to apply for a uniform set of permissions.

If we take the recent scenario the State-run telecom operator BSNL is said to expand its network in Chhattisgarh by installing 2,000 new mobile towers in the next two years, Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, stepping forward to strengthen mobile connectivity in the state.

Telecom Secretary J S Deepak recently said that penal powers cannot be “one and final solution” for call drop and the telecom firms have committed Rs 12,000 cr to install new towers to check this problem.

“Government believes in the telecom sector. The quality of service must improve and industry has responsibility. They have committed 60,000 towers. Each tower cost about Rs 20 lakh which is around Rs 12,000 crore. The industry will make this investment in next three months,” he said recently.

Most of the mobile service providers have frequently failed in quarterly sample call drop tests conducted by Trai but operators have contested the results saying that they comply with benchmark set by the regulator.

On this, the operators raised issues such as regulatory hurdles by local authorities and opposition by residents associations to installation of mobile towers.

“All top CEOs have said they will set up war rooms to address this issue. We need to work with them to facilitate installation of mobile towers,” Deepak said.

“We are coordinating with minister (Ravi Shankar Prasad) to launch portal on EMF (radiation) next month. This will give data of about 4.3 lakh mobile towers. People can go online and check if a tower is emitting radiation within limit or not so that citizens are aware that it not an issue,” he added.

So after the launch of portal on EMF (radiation) next month, the fight on hurdles might be resolved, which will then raise questions on the operators if the call drop issue still persists.

Do companies benefit from call drops?

All the benefits depend on the tariff plan. If it’s measured in seconds, the telecom company gains nothing — no matter how many times the connection cut, billing resumes at the same rate. But if it is measured in minutes, or if the plan contains features such as a certain number of free calls in every billing cycle, call drops is a nightmare for the consumers.

Telecom firms claim that 95 per cent of tariff plans involves billing in seconds. Since call drops are the most common in overcrowded areas, interruptions tend to shorten the call and, to that extent, reduce the average revenue per user per minute. Since companies measure their performance on the basis of call drops too, it is risky for anyone to intentionally create conditions for drops, thus porting to another operator.

Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) in a report said that the telecom industry is facing a lot of challenges which are leading to call drops:

  • State bodies initiate actions against the towers without any prior notices like disconnecting electricity supplies, sealing the premises and even dismantling of tower sites.
  • Restrictions imposed by state governments and municipalities for wireless sites for erecting cell-sites in non-commercial areas, sealing of the cell-sites by municipal authorities.
  • Issues pertaining to Right of Way (RoW) – due to no approval, operators are not even in a position to put up sites. Frequent fiber cuts due to infrastructure projects are recurring phenomena in almost all circles.
  • Site outages on account of long power failures and delay in restoration of power supply by electricity boards.
  • Owner/legal issues, which is an important factor, because if the operator does not obtain the permission to set up the cell site, calls in the area would be dropped.
  • Interference due to illegal wide band radio and coverage restrictions arising out of cross border spectrum interference.
  • Shortage of spectrum amid surging data traffic growth and the lack of availability of a sufficient quantum of globally harmonized spectrum in contiguous form is the biggest impediment to the deployment of wireless technologies in the access network and hence for better quality of service resulting in increased call drops with the increase in data traffic.

Government’s role and what it can do

The government says that call drops can be addressed to a large extent through better management of spectrum, something that will only provide partial relief. The occurrence of call drops is higher at busy areas, typically city centres. This means there is an unequal spread of traffic across the spectrum.

Regardless of these technical roadblocks, there is actually quite a lot that the government can do.

  • General allowing of shared spectrum so that the same bandwidth is homogenously distributed among towers that are in a row.
  • Government rules prohibit spectrum swapping, but to tackle the issue a policy should be amended for the same.
  • Unused spectrum bands, which are either not used or have been missed due to the traffic in the bandwidth should be reformed and put to efficient use.
  • Every state should be encouraged to use uniform procedures on towers and policies regarding this should be amended.
  • Set up rules for companies to improve on their services. Besides penalty which has been dropped government should keep a check on telcos to work properly.

Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director at the Centre for Internet and Society said that Telecom companies in India have scarcity in terms of spectrum, which needs to be rationalised by allowing spectrum policy in India.

He also added that the government’s decision of not allowing spectrum supply doesn’t really make sense as India needs the policy. Also, the radiations emitted by the spectrum which are harming people should be scientifically taken care of.

What are the benchmarks for call drop that should be followed by the telcos?

TRAI has laid down the quality of service benchmarks for call drop rate to be less than 2 percent. The 2 percent call drop benchmark means that not more than 2 percent calls made from a network should automatically disconnected in a telecom circle.

Recently, the call drop test was conducted in Bhopal and Mumbai. TRAI found that most operators in Mumbai, except Airtel 2G/3G and Vodafone 2G, are not meeting the under 2 per cent call drop rate benchmark. In the drive tests conducted during May 10 to 13 in Mumbai, the call drop rates of No 1 carrier, Bharti Airtel's 2G and 3G networks, stood at 1.49 per cent and 1.94 per cent, while Vodafone-2G's was 1.68 per cent.

Other than Airtel and Vodafone in 2G, all operators failed to meet the Call Drop Rate benchmark in Bhopal. TRAI in a report said that Idea, Reliance and BSNL all have Call Drop Rates in the range of 10 percent or above. These are exceptionally high and clearly indicate urgent need for improvement in order to deliver reasonable levels of service.

What steps should be taken to improve the problem?

A lot has to be done to settle the issue. The mobile towers do not have an unlimited capacity for handling the current network load. So telecom companies need to increase the towers to tackle the load. This is being followed as telecom operators have decided to invest Rs.12,000 crore for installation of 60,000 more towers over the next three months, while the BSNL will install 21,000 BTS towers a report said.

A report by TRAI said that the problems like removal of towers from certain areas by authorities needs to be addressed. Also, with the increase in the usage of 3G networks, the growth rate of mobile towers supporting 2G networks has reduced, which also needs to be addressed.

Recently, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claimed that the call drop problem was improving with various telecom companies are installing about 1.24 lakh towers to mitigate the issue. In a report he said, “Things are improving....private telecom operators have installed one lakh towers, while the State-owned BSNL has put in place 24,000 Base Transceiver Station (BTS) towers across the country in the past one year to improve the call drop problem.”

The roadmap

Surveys are being conducted and a lot of efforts are being made by the operators and also TRAI to solve the call drop issue. However, in a country with the world’s second-largest mobile user market it is tough to solve the problem completely but not impossible. That, in theory, is the situation. On ground though, things don’t appear to be running in tune with tall claims by the government or the telecom companies. If the situation is improving, as the government claims, change needs to be visible, which is apparently not the case. Also, if the investments are being made to the tune of what the telecom companies are claiming, that would translate into solving the issue.

The moot point here is that if the number of towers is the root cause behind the millions of consumers facing this absolute nightmare of an issue, can this “go-getter” government not come to any arrangement so as to solve the issue? Perhaps, the government, which displayed exemplary enthusiasm in gaining a seat in the coveted Nuclear Suppliers Group, needs to translate some of that energy into getting to a solution for an issue plaguing a large and growing population of its billion plus populace. It would only serve some good. No pun intended.

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