As the blame game continues between telecom operators and the government, is there a solution for call drops?
Taru Bhatia | October 3, 2015 | New Delhi
While talking to a friend on a mobile phone have you experienced a sudden disruption in connection? And the call ends abruptly midway? Chances are you have. Call drops have become a serious problem lately, causing a nuisance to the users. The call drop issue has also triggered a war between the telecom operators and authorities who keep shifting the blame to the other for the disruption in connection.
In the first quarter of this year, call drops jumped seven-fold on 2G network and by 65 percent on 3G network, according to the telecom regulatory authority of India (TRAI). On the face of it, the department of telecommunications (DoT) and TRAI together accused the operators for not investing much on infrastructure, i.e., cell phone towers. Objecting to this, the private telecom operators say that they should not be the only one to blame. The operators feel that they face non-cooperation from the state-level authorities on various grounds to get permission for erecting a cell phone tower.
Interview: TRAI chairman RS Sharma
The quarterly report on performance of telecom operators by TRAI (January to March 2015) stated that India is witnessing a new surge in mobile phone users. The country is now at the second largest position, as the count has touched 970 million. However, the report also spoke of unbalanced growth in terms of infrastructure the country is seeing in order to accommodate such massive users. There is an eight percent increase in 2G-compliant GSM mobile phone towers in contrast to its data usage grew 106 percent. On the other hand, mobile phone towers for 3G network grew by 61 percent, while its data usage went up by 252 percent.
In New Delhi and Mumbai, TRAI conducted an independent drive to check the quality of services delivered. Both the cities were divided into six blocks for the survey. While in Mumbai, the call drop rate stayed within six percent, even though the permissible limit is two percent, Delhi went way beyond till 17 percent.
These numbers support the accusation made by the ministry, but Rajan Mathews, director, cellular operators association of India (COAI), tells a different story. He says that they face various restrictions from the local authorities while installing cell phone towers. “Some jurisdiction say don’t put it [tower] on schools, don’t put it on hospitals. The prime minister says you must put it in hospitals because that is the place you need it the most,” he adds.
On Delhi having the maximum number of call drops, operators argue that it is due to the sealing drive undertaken by the municipalities from the past few months. Also, the fear of radiation is hindering operators from installing mobile towers in restricted as well as residential areas. “The government has come out very openly on EMF radiation clarifying that it is not harmful. But we get numerous calls from RWAs and residences asking us to take down the tower because they heard it causes cancer. The human mind tries these correlations. So from the time I get permission to build a tower, it takes nine months to a year to put up the tower. So when a tower is taken down, you can imagine... it takes nine months to correct a problem,” explains Mathews.
Sudhir Mehta, executive engineer, South Delhi municipal corporation (SDMC), however says, “Sealing towers on health hazard ground is not in our policy.” He argues that the number of illegal towers on their property has increased, and they have the power to seal or remove such towers.
As per SDMC, eight towers were removed in July, while 115 were sealed. The data also shows that out of 3,670 towers, 2,537 towers were set up illegally. This is a whopping 69 percent of the total towers erected by the telecom service providers.
The point of contention here is the hike in permission fee. In its revised 29-point guidelines, MCD, in 2010, raised the permission fee to '5 lakh from the earlier charge of '1 lakh. The hike of permission fee was challenged by the operators in the Delhi high court. And, since then the matter is unresolved. Other clause that was challenged by the operators was clause 5 of the MCD that deals with areas where towers can be installed.
Since the matter is still sub-judice, the Delhi high court has directed civil authorities in Delhi not to seal towers until the fee structure issue is settled. However, according to SDMC mayor Subhash Arya, besides the fee and area concerns, there are other clauses that the operators need to follow. Since majority of operators fail to meet other guidelines, the corporation is forced to continue with the sealing drive.
In September the operators wrote a joint letter to the central government seeking its help. In return, communications and information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad offered the operators an option to install towers on central government buildings. He also asked the authorities in Delhi to stop the sealing drive until the matter is resolved.
“The DoT has sent very clear guidelines to the state. It is the central agency that gives licences to the operators. Municipalities do not want to follow these guidelines,” says Mathews.
TV Ramachandran, chairman, Assocham telecom council, agrees and says that the central government needs to notify rules for installing towers. “This is not the jurisdiction of municipalities. The telecommunication industry is the central government’s jurisdiction,” he says. “The country has to progress. If you want Digital India, then this has to be resolved. All it requires is the notification of rules from DoT,” he adds.
Expressing dissatisfaction over the government’s criticism over lack of enough investment by telecom operators, Mahesh Uppal, an industry expert and director of ComFirst India, says, “Government pressure on telecom operators over investment is wrong. They should not dictate telecom operators on investment-related matters.
“If a detergent company is not performing well, does the government tell it where to invest more in order to improve quality? No, that decision is taken by the company itself after observing the market reviews,” he adds.
Having a uniform policy
As the deadlock continues over tower installation, Uppal suggests that the government must come up with a policy where information flow is transparent. “This way each department – state government, operators, municipalities or central government – will know where the problem lies, making it easy to rectify,” he says. It is crucial for all authorities to work jointly rather than interfere in each other’s department.
Meanwhile, the operators too have been asking for a uniform policy as a single-window clearance. The regulatory body however expressed doubts over having a uniform policy. RS Sharma, chairman, TRAI, says, “A common and transparent policy is certainly good for the industry.
They will know who to approach for permission and how work can be completed in time. However, regarding tower installation sites there is the issue of jurisdiction over the area where a tower is to be installed. The central government can, for example, easily allow towers to be installed on its property and buildings. Similarly, it is for the state governments to decide about its properties and for the municipal authorities on theirs. I am, therefore, not sure whether a uniform, enforceable policy in this regard can be made by any one central government department."
Sharma, however, stresses that a common policy and transparent guidelines by agencies will be helpful.
(The story appears in the October 1-15, 2015 issue)
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