Lost in Transmission: Why calls ‘drop’, what can be done about it

Checks and Balances: Geetanjali Minhas speaks with two industry veterans to figure out the nuisance mobile phone users have continued to face

GN Bureau | March 1, 2024

#Spectrum   #Mobile Telephony   #Telecommunication   #Technology   #Consumer  

Random call drops across cellular networks has been a major nuisance for consumers. Despite the advent of technologies like 4G, 5G and users upgrading their phones, they continue face the same old problem of call drops. Earlier, with 2G, calling was the primary service from the mobile telephony firms, however, today it is only one among many services used by consumers:  we make calls using data like on platform like WhatsApp call, among many more.

In the 12th episode of ‘Checks and Balances’, Geetanjali Minhas of Governance Now spoke with experts and industry veterans – Parag Kar, former vice president, Government Affairs, Qualcomm, India and South Asia, and T. V. Ramachandran, president, Broadband India Forum – about the reasons behind the persisting nuisance, and what can be done about it.
You can watch the full episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DH6Xv3Af3ns

Explaining the situation specific to the Indian telecom market, Parag Kar, former vice president, Government Affairs, Qualcomm, India and South Asia, said that the reason the quality of service has become an issue is that the network has become very heterogeneous. Operators have the responsibility to manage multiple types of networks simultaneously like 2G, 3G, 4G and now 5G. And when the consumer moves from one network to another the connectivity transfer does not happen seamlessly.

“This is peculiar to our country. It is difficult to completely phase out 2G services from the market because there are consumers who cannot afford 3G, 4G and 5G phones.” Secondly, there are not enough mobile towers in the country. Unless the density of the network is good enough to be able to cover every nook and corner of the country, consumers will not be able to get seamless connections as mobile networks primarily run on radio frequency (RF) spectrum. The user has to be within the reach of their particular network or RF spectrum.

There are low, mid and high frequency bands with different types of coverages. All three different bands are required. Low frequency bands have higher coverage and signals travel far from the base station. Mid frequency bands have less coverage than low frequency bands and high frequency bands have the least coverage. Also, high frequency bands have large quantum of spectrum and cater to capacity but cannot travel far from the base station and penetrate buildings trees and other obstructions. Mid frequency bands have less spectrum as compared to the high frequency band and the low frequency band have with the least quantum of spectrum, but provide highest coverage.

“Today 4G and 5G network have been deployed in the low frequency band. Moreover with 5G, the carpet to carpet coverage network is not aligned with 2G, 4G and 3G spectrum bands as those have been deployed in the low frequency band. So you have got a discontinuity of coverage because high frequency does not penetrate indoors,” Kar said.

He added that for operators to really unlock the value of 5G, “not only you need low frequency band but you need to choose one particular low frequency band. You cannot basically mix and match between low frequency band…. because your network coverage is going to shrink if you are going to mix and match between bands. Secondly, there are no dearth of spectrum in mid frequency and high frequency but low frequency band is missing”.

Another problem he pointed out is that in 2G and 3G, Wi-Fi network can supplement some of the connectivity. But in 5G, due to its lower latency, Wi-Fi is not very compatible and need you need to go in low frequency band.

The third factor, Kar said, is that the low frequency band which has got maximum coverage is underutilised in India.

The value of low frequency bands is elevated to such high values in every round of auction that operators are not able to afford this valuable asset. “Decrease in competition has demotivated the operators who do not have any motivation to drive and make more Investments. As a result, consumers do not have any choice. It is not in the interest of the country to keep these resources lying shallow because these resources are perishable commodity. By wasting resources, you are not really adding any value to the to the country's economy.

“You need to have a holistic plan taking into consideration all the participants in the telecom sector. These players are not only driving their own vested interests as well as their company shareholding and value is concerned but acting as contributors towards the country's economy. We cannot looks at them as opponents,” he said.

Here, T. V. Ramachandran, president, Broadband India Forum, who played a key role in the evolution of mobile telecommunications in the country with the launch of Essar Telecom (which has now become Vodafone India Ltd) in 1994 as its first CEO, underlined the criticality of having a network design among other things and said that unless you have the optimum location of the towers unit you will never get a proper signal correctly at all the right places.

“There is such a thing as call handoff from tower to tower. If the network is tuned correctly with certain other factors, the handoff will be smooth and painless. But often times it is not and call is dropped. Not only the number of towers and the right location are important, but also they have to be tuned properly. It is like a musical instrument… when you buy a guitar or a veena you do tuning. Like that entire mesh of towers and other supporting switches etc have to be tuned up to give optimum performance ….  

“There are a lot of challenges in there. RF engineering has to be a part of that. The operator should try to optimise it to the maximum.”

He added that even if there is no call drop you cannot have any means of guaranteeing a skiddy speed in a mobile network, because the speed and the quality will depend upon the number of people using the network at that time, distance from the tower, speed of movement etc. There will always have a certain degree of variability.

He also said cheap, low quality phones available in the market also lead to poor quality of service and call drops as he said that even between branded phones there can be differences in how they pick up a call.  

He further said that in defence, cantonment and other sensitive areas where the government does not allow towers to be set up, the operator cannot do anything. Often the operators face opposition as a local activist will not allow operators to set up cell towers and in the bargain cell operators have to compromise by placing the tower to a location which may not provide optimum coverage.

Ramachandran also dispelled the notion of radiation emanating from cell towers. “There is a lot of fear mongering … the power of the waves is very low. I can tell you that… and have been repeatedly vouched for by no less that the highest authorities in Geneva by WHO and ITU (International telecommunications Union), an impartial world body. I have been involved in some of the studies done in Germany, it is clear that EMF radiation from the antenna is far below anything that should concern a human being,” he said.

Strongly voicing support for newer technologies like WiFi, broadband and fibre, he said with coming in of data intensive work and with 80%-90% data traffic inside buildings where 5G wave and 6G wave will not work. Not only WiFi will give good connectivity but also provide incremental revenue to operators. He calls for having public Wifi hotspots all over, like the rest of the world as he said that “Modern WiFi signals like WiFi 6 and WiFi 7 are as good as 5G. It is actually poor man's WiFi. Rural areas will be able to afford it because they'd be very low cost.

“When you do call on WiFi, the operator will benefit. Because the WiFi operator does not have the permission or licence to set up core network. Unless you have core network how can you carry the call. So you have to hand over the call. Problem is inside buildings and campuses ... So if I throw a proper WiFi inside and give it to the carrier who is just outside the building ...  Airtel, Jio … you'll get more data traffic. So I'm actually giving them incremental revenue,” explained Ramachandran.

“They will not do it… not allow others do this because they're saying WiFi is our preserve, which was there at one time. Today with liberalization anyone can set up public Wi-Fi. With Wi-Fi … you never have a call drop because there are enough waves inside the building. You're going to use it only inside. Today's Wi-Fi, which is not there in India yet, Wi-Fi 6, WiFi 7  has been launched abroad just abroad a few months ago, the semiconductor chip for that was exported a few months ago by none other than HFCL one of our own  Indian companies  but in India we are not using it,” he said.




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