The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has asked telecom companies to compensate customers for call drops from January. It has put in place a mechanism under which the companies will have to pay Rs 1 to users per call drop . This will be limited to three dropped calls per day.
The move has unnerved the operators and brought relief to consumers. However, Trai's approach is ad hoc. It is expecting that penalising the companies will force them to shape up. It is finding a solution to the call drop menace by working on symptoms rather than the disease. At the heart of the problem is congestion of telecom networks, and to some extent, shortage of spectrum with operators. For instance, the number of base stations, or BTS, installed by Indian telecom companies is much less compared with countries such as China, Singapore and the UK. As per the Cellular Operators Association of India, or COAI, China Mobile, with a subscriber base of 870 million, has 20 lakh BTS. In India, on an average, a typical telecom operator has 230 million subscribers and two lakh BTS. This means every BTS of China Mobile serves roughly 430 subscribers. For an Indian company, the figure is 1,200. In the UK, Vodafone has 450 subscribers per BTS.
BTS is the antenna on the tower which is responsible for carrying out radio communication between the network and phones. One tower usually has three BTS units.
Trai recently pointed out at a two-fold rise in call drops on 2G networks in the past one year. In June-July this year, it conducted drive tests on certain routes of Mumbai and Delhi in which it found out that the call drop rates of most companies were higher than the benchmark (which is 2 per cent).
The simplest way to decongest networks is to put up more towers, especially in densely populated areas. A Deloitte study says the number of mobile towers in India is likely to rise to over five lakh by 2020 from about four lakh at present.
The companies say that installing towers is a challenging task in India. In reply to Trais paper on the compensation proposal, the COAI had said that despite clear Department of Telecom guidelines, state bodies disconnect electricity connection, seal premises and dismantle tower sites without giving prior notice.
The paper also says that in spite of stringent safety norms compared to several other countries, there is a lack of awareness on the electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation issue. In India, a fear of EMF emissions has led to shutdown of cell sites in several public places and residential areas.
Trais stop-gap solution is expected to fall flat unless the key problems are dealt with.