The past decade, particularly since 2003, has seen colossal development and dynamism in the Indian Telecommunication sector. With the increase in dependency on phones and an unprecedented boom in communication traffic, cell phone users also experience technical glitches and undesirable interruptions in their phones due to connectivity problems. Current cellular technology has some technical issues allowing potential for voice calls to drop which affects everything from an individual’s life to business relationships. With data use on the ascent, the congestion is getting from terrible to more regrettable [Subhashish Gupta, Telecommunications at the crossroads in India, IIMB Mngt. Rev. 27, 196–208, (2015)]. Indian service operators have a smaller amount of range as compared to the range possessed by their worldwide associates, yet ordinarily more subscribers. India, therefore, has the most congested telecom systems in the world [More Spectrum Needed, BUSINESS STANDARD, available at http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/more-spectrum-needed-115071200834_1.html (Last accessed on July 14, 2015)].

The Department of Telecom (DoT) under Ministry of Communication & Information Technology is responsible for spectrum administration and to regulate telecommunication services. DoT established the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in 1997 to promote the interest of service companies and their customers and to ensure orderly development of the telecom industry in India through the Telecom Authority of India Act, 1997. DoT likewise allocates frequency and is also in charge of monitoring the wireless transmission of all users in the nation and implementing wireless regulatory measures.

In the previous one year, customers have raised the issue of call drops, persistently complaining that their experience of making voice calls is appalling. The issue of call drops in the nation seems to have aggravated with the progression of timebetween June-July 2015, TRAI conducted special drive-tests on specific routes of Mumbai and Delhi to assess the situation. In the drive-tests, it was found that the Call Drop Rate of the majority of the Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) was higher than the benchmark of <=2%, set by the Authority [TRAI, Consultation Paper on Compensation to the Consumers in the Event of Dropped Calls, Dated 04.09.2015]. As per the TRAI’s service performance pointers for January-March 2015, 23 mobile systems (2G) out of 183 across the nation did not meet the 3% benchmark for the traffic channel drop rate [Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators January – March, 2015 (12th August, 2015)]. In spite of the fact that this was a change contrasted with 25 networks in the quarter ended December 2014 [Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators July – September, 2014 (29th January, 2015)]. It is very well known that poor call quality is a noteworthy issue, yet no one knows precisely how huge this issue is.

TRAI has been unable to meet the expectations of the service users as well as service providers to address the call drops menace through the latest regulations namely:

  1. The Standards Of Quality Of Service Of Basic Telephone Service (Wireline) And Cellular Mobile Telephone Service (Fourth Amendment) Regulations, 2015, dated 15th October, 2015
  2. Telecom Consumer Protection (Ninth Amendment) Regulation Act, 2015, dated 16th October, 2015.

These have clearly proved to be insufficient to curb the issue as it only provides for the liabilities to be imposed on the service providers and the compensation to the customers respectively. The Telecom Consumers Protection Regulation, 2012, Regulation 2(bb) has also inserted the definition of call drops as a voice call which, after being successfully established, is hindered before its normal completion; the reason of early termination is within the system of the service suppliers.

Recent steps to curb the issue:

As per the Standards Of Quality Of Service Of Basic Telephone Service (Wireline) And Cellular Mobile Telephone Service Regulations, 2009 (hereinafter referred to as “Regulation, 2009”), every cellular mobile service provider is required to meet the Quality of Service (QoS) benchmark for cellular mobile telephone service which includes Call Drop Rate ≤ 2% in one month. The provision also further directs the service provider to measure the service coverage through drive tests of the cellular mobile telephone network at periodic intervals and take remedial action to address problems related to coverage including interference, call drop and voice quality revealed during such drive tests; and  maintain the records of such drive tests and the action taken on the problems related to coverage including interference, call drop and voice quality revealed during such drive tests [Sec 6(3)(a), Regulation, 2009]. The service provider can, suo motu, take all remedial action to rectify shortcomings or deficiencies, if any, detected during the joint drive tests referred in the Regulation [Sec 6(5), Regulation, 2009].

Any non-compliance with the QoS laid down by TRAI amounts to violation of the Regulation, 2009. For such violation of the regulations, the Authority is empowered to take penal action against the service provider under Sections 29, 30 and 34 of the TRAI Act, 1997. As per the licence conditions, the service providers have to meet the QoS standards laid down by TRAI or the licensor and any failure to meet the benchmarks laid down by TRAI for the various QoS parameters amounts to violation of licence conditions giving DoT power to impose penalty.

The Standards Of Quality Of Service Of Basic Telephone Service (Wireline) And Cellular Mobile Telephone Service (Fourth Amendment) Regulations, 2015, dated 15th October, 2015 imposes the liability to pay an amount of rupees one lakh for the first contravention reported by the service provider in its Quarterly Report, in case the Service Provider fails to meet the requirement set by the Act. Further in case where the service provider fails to meet the benchmark in two or more subsequent quarters, it shall be liable to pay an amount of rupees one lakh fifty thousand for the second consecutive contravention which shall not exceed the amount of rupee two lakhs for each consecutive contravention occurring thereafter. The Telecom Consumer Protection (Ninth Amendment) Regulation Act, 2015, dated 16th Oct, 2015 provides relief to the customers in case of call drops. In such a case, the service provider needs to credit the account of the calling consumer by one rupee but it is limited to three dropped calls in a day [Section 16 (Measures to provide relief to consumer), Telecom Consumers Protection Regulations, 2012].

Comment on the recent regulations issued by TRAI:

Amidst rising instances of call drops, the Sector Regulator TRAI has proposed that service providers should compensate mobile subscribers for call drops and poor QoS. The improvement proposal of TRAI provides to make it a mandate to not charge the customer if the call gets dropped within five seconds. Another recommendation provides for compensation in two ways. First, by giving free minutes to the customers in case of a call drop. Second, by providing credit to their accounts, in case of prepaid users and in case of postpaid accounts; bills must be reduced by that amount. However, considering the methods of compensation, employing technology to find out the reason behind the interrupted call, and prospective disputes arising among the service providers and their customers, makes it difficult to implement such recommendations. Also, the latest regulations are only focused to provide compensation and not in eradicating the problem from its roots. Consumers have a right to be compensated but at the same time, they also have a right to not face the call connectivity problems over and over again.

Blame Game: Towers to blame

Calls get dropped or blocked if there is too little spectrum for the number of subscribers, reason being, that the calls surpass the conveying limit of the spectrum. Users get great gathering when they are close to towers, however in the event that different towers are excessively close, obstruction from signals from those towers can decrease the availability of accessible range, and gathering may additionally be boisterous. A feeble association with a far off tower results in poor gathering [Andrea Goldsmith, Wireless Communications, Cambridge University Press, 2005].

The issue has been regarding the auction of spectrum for which the government has not been guided by the need to decongest systems rather by income potential outcomes. For instance, armed forces had cleared 15 MHz of range, yet the government sold just 5 MHz in February, 2015. It was then contended that the government had not got ownership of the spectrum from the armed forces when the auctions were held. Apart from deficient spectrum, the other component that has compounded the quality of telecom services is the failure of service operators to set up towers. The fear of harmful radiation which has been debated by most researchers and by public health authorities, for example, the American Cancer Society is the reason why the individuals are hesitant to let towers come up in their neighborhood. Therefore, the service operators find it difficult to erect towers. For instance, Bharti Airtel, the nation’s biggest telecom company needs 217 towers in New Delhi’s Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone. However, it has only 117 sites. In such a situation, service quality is sure to suffer.

On the positive side, the Information Technology Department of the Kerala Government passed an order to install mobile towers on government’s land and buildings in the state to ensure better network connectivity [COAI welcomes Government of Kerala’s decision to sanction installation of Telecom Towers on Government Land and Buildings, Press Release, dated January 9, 2015]. In the light of this policy, DoT is expected to approach the Union Urban Development Ministry to permit telecom companies to set up towers in all central government buildings in metros and state capitals. that ought to address the tower issue, however just partially [More Spectrum Needed, Business Standard, available at http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/more-spectrum-needed-115071200834_1.html (Last accessed on July 14, 2015)].

At present, there are around 425,000 towers across the country; another 100,000 to 200,000 are required for a better coverage. A housetop tower can cost Rs 10-15 lakh and a ground-based tower Rs 25-30 lakh. This deficiency implies a cap-ex saving of at least Rs 10,000 crore [Telecom companies cornered over call drops, BUSINESS STANDARD, available at http://www.businessstandard.com/article/economy-policy/telecom-companies-cornered-over-call-drops-115091501301_1.html (Last accessed at September 20, 2015)]. As indicated in a report by Deloitte, the tower system is relied upon to grow at a snail’s pace – only 3 percent per annum – to reach 511,000 by 2020 [Deloitte, Indian Tower Industry The Future Is Data, Page 28 (June 2015)], which is not enough to solve this connectivity menace.

Spectrum trading and sharing: An Appropriate solution

Spectrum allocation in India was initially done by bundling start-up spectrum with the license. The additional allocation of spectrum was at the discretion of the licensor on a case-by-case basis [Telecom Sector in India: A Decadal Profile, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, 3rd May, 2012]. In November 2012, the then Government affirmed the principle of sharing the spectrum, however detailed guidelines were not issued, and the strategy could not be executed. The issue was under active consideration of the present Government as this course of action aids in streamlining resources and builds movement limit, which is helpful for guaranteeing QoS.

The major defense taken by the Service Provider is that of shortage of Spectrum. The Government, finally, keeping in mind such bottlenecks, approved the Spectrum Sharing and Trading Policy [Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Approval to guidelines on spectrum sharing, 12th August, 2015]. The Cabinet likewise chose that both licensees sharing the spectrum should mutually give a prior intimation for sharing the right to utilize the spectrum in no less than 45 days before the proposed effective date of the sharing. This was guided by the principle of “ease of doing business”. The Government will have the privilege to make suitable move which in addition to other things may incorporate invalidation of sharing course of action. A processing fee, of Rs. 50,000/ – which could be altered now and again, should be payable independently by every licensee for every service area at the time of intimation.

Vesting the right to ownership in the hands of Government, the Cabinet has approved to provide right to trade between two service providers. The Cabinet has cleared spectrum trading guidelines under which telecom firms will have the capacity to sell radio waves to other service providers [Cabinet clears spectrum trading guidelines, BUSINESS STANDARD, available at http://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/cabinet-clears-spectrum-trading-guidelines-115090900509_1.html]. This will help to address the issue of spectrum deficiency.

Prior to these guidelines only government was permitted to allocate spectrum to telecom companies through auctions. This move is relied upon to build proficient utilization of radio waves by empowering telecoms, which have a low subscriber base or underutilized spectrum lying with them, to exchange radio waves. Telecoms will have to intimate the government 45 days before the transaction and will have to pay 1% of the transaction sum as trading fee. It has likewise suggested a lock-in time of 2 years on spectrum that a company procures through auction or exchanging before it can trade it further.

Trading allows operators to sell the unutilized airwaves, offering an exit route for struggling operators. Through sharing, operators can pool in their spectrum resources to create a larger bank and each partner can use the airwaves from the pool as per its needs. Sharing of spectrum could allow operators to cut down on capital expenditure; they could pass on the benefit to subscribers through lower tariffs. For consumers, this could mean better quality of voice services and faster data speeds, as sharing could reduce traffic congestion on the network. In addition, spectrum pooling builds range effectiveness for both operators, as ability to convey telecom movement is not in direct extent to the total of their range holding, however is much bigger than the activity’s entirety limits of individual service providers. TRAI has observed that pick up in spectral efficiency increments non-linearly with the quantum of range. This encourages streamlining of resources, thereby making a helpful domain for telecom development by supplementing one another’s necessities and guaranteeing more effective use of the range.

Department of Telecom’s view:

Department of Telecom holds the telecoms accountable, whereas the operators point towards inadequacy of spectrum and towers. The onus of providing spectrum, in turn, is on the government. The Government states that there is sufficient spectrum and operators only need to contribute and deliver. Telecom companies are blamed for under-investing resources into infrastructure including towers. TRAI pointed that telecoms made investment in network system infrastructure of just Rs 9,325 crore in 2013-14. Amidst this period, the minutes of usage developed by 6.8% while investments in system base became just by 4.6% [Lowdown on TRAI’s consultation paper on call drops, Available at http://www.medianama.com/2015/09/223-trai-call-drops-lowdown/]. In the wake of paying huge amount of cash for spectrum in auctions, it has been recommended that telecoms are eliminating different interests keeping in mind the end goal to shore up their benefits. The Chairman of TRAI is of the opinion that deficient investment in infrastructure seems to be one of the main reasons for call drops [Telecom companies cornered over call drops, Business Standard, available at http://www.businessstandard.com/article/economy-policy/telecom-companies-cornered-over-call-drops-115091501301_1.html (Last accessed on September 20, 2015)]. Also, it is true that the infrastructure has not grown in tandem with the subscriber base.

In demand for allocation of spectrum, the secretary said there was redistribution of spectrum after the March closeout and a few operators have now less range in 900 MHz band and more in 1800 MHz. Presently, the Telecom firms need to put more in 1800 MHz for GSM but because of changing advancements they are not contributing. In the following years, it is estimated that there will be less interest for GSM and more individuals will switch to LTE, so the operators have distributed more spectrum for LTE (4G) where clients are not very many as of now and which is by all accounts one of the primary explanation behind call drops.

Telecom Secretary is of the opinion that there is no linkage between call drops and tower policy. There was no policy earlier and even then  call drops did not happen. The issue has emerged in the most recent seven months [Uniform national tower policy needed to be address call drop, Business Standard, available at http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/uniform-national-tower-policy-needed-to-address-call-drops-115081700727_1.html]. He also requested the Telecom operators to take steps to enhance services and said that ‘no serious efforts are being made to bring about a perceptible change’. He likewise said that advancement and streamlining is a continuous procedure and endeavors should be escalated for desirable results [Unified licensing guidelines abolish cross-holding among telcos, BUSINESS STANDARD, available at http://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/unified-licensing-guidelines-abolish-cross-holding-among-telcos-113071000836_1.html].

The allocation of spectrum is de-connected from the license and must be acquired independently according to prescribed procedure i.e. binding process. Only one Unified License is required for all telecom services in whole nation [Annual Report 2014-2015, Department of Telecommunications Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, Government of India]. On sealing of towers, DoT is of the opinion that the number of towers which have been influenced is too little to have a reasonable impact in terms of frequent call drops. Therefore, Government has rejected the operator’s claim that call drops were connected to absence of a national tower policy and said they would need to find a solution from the current standards [Govt, Telecos lock horns over call drops, THE PIONEER, available at:  http://www.dailypioneer.com/print.php?printFOR=storydetail&story_url_key=govt-telcos-lock-horns-over-call-drops&section_url_key=business (Last accessed on September 1, 2015)].

Private operator’s view:

To overthrow the blame of call drops, operators contend that it is a direct result of the closure and deficiency of cell towers and too little spectrum. The industry referred to a few difficulties being confronted amidst installation of towers because of distinctive reasons including state bodies’ activities without earlier notification, limitations by regions, sealing orders, power supply issues and troubles in getting clearances for installation sites. Even as the government plans to peruse out this acute problem, telecom firms say lack of spectrum and the failure to set up towers are affecting their administration. The Telecom firms said that about 7,000–10,000 destinations are secured or close crosswise over major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Patna and Jaipur because of different reasons, including sealing orders by local bodies without earlier notice. With so many non-operational cell destinations, it is difficult to combat such a problem. They additionally need different state governments and municipal corporations to give consent to site establishment on government structures and backing a moderate Right of Way for fiber.

Telecom operators faulted fixing of towers by local bodies and absence of national tower policy for call drops. All telecom firms and industry affiliations requested that there ought to be a uniform tower strategy that can be actualized across the nation [COAI welcomes Government of Kerala’s decision to sanction installation of Telecom Towers on Government Land and Buildings, Press Release, dated January 9, 2015]. The demand of the hour is to have uniform policies and not just guidelines. Still others say that since each new call implies more income, call drops are really being encouraged by the telecom firms. It so happens that most clients have moved to per-second charging. So there is truly no motivating force for telecom firms to upset calls every now and again.

Combating call drops: Call to action

One way to combat the problem is to embrace strategies and regulations that encourage spectral effectiveness which includes permitting roaming and spectrum trading. This wouldn’t relieve the issue of unreasonable capital consumption on spectrum auctions that surpasses investments in systems, however would enhance range use. Another way is to share all range through pooling is permitting common bearer access on installment to Radio Access Networks including spectrum. The government needs to unite operators and different partners, including the Ministries of communication & IT and of information & broadcasting and work out how to sort out and convey the guarantee of Digital India. Too many pieces will have to fall in place to solve this issue.

The top Service provider demanded uniform national tower policy with a view to have a uniform system for the implementation and regulation of tower in whole India. These policies include providing space for telecom tower on government land, buildings, defense lands and faster right of way approvals. DoT along with Wireless Planning Commission (WPC) should expedite on spectrum harmonization and remove interference from illegal wide band radios both through intra-country wide as well as cross-border. The COAI claims that a national implementable tower policy will help in providing a good quality voice and data network across the length and breadth of the country. The same View was also expressed by the Kerala High Court that the Government Lands and Building, PSUs are the best place to implement the tower [COAI welcomes Government of Kerala’s decision to sanction installation of Telecom Towers on Government Land and Buildings, Press Release, dated January 9, 2015].

Apart from spectrum and licensing expenses, the quantity of towers in a region drives the capital and working expenses, materials and energy utilized and the natural effect. As every tower covers various subscribers and range is utilized for wireless connections, more subscribers need more range. In this way, a given arrangement of towers gives greater traffic carrying capacity if there is more range. Alternately, less range requires more towers and equipment, which implies higher expenses and environmental effect.

For a given spectrum band and set of towers and subscribers, a little arrangement of broader bands can carry more activity than can a huge arrangement of smaller bands [An assessment of spectrum management policy in India, December 2008, available at http://www.aegis-systems.co.uk/download/2021/spectrum%20management%20 (India).pdf]. Also, there must be speedy redressal forums where complaints can be submitted immediately with ease so that dead spot can be registered and a time bounding solution is met out to provide coverage to such shaded areas.

The problem of call drop cannot be solved by merely issuing guidelines or regulations. But there is an urgent need to find the solution with the help of right mix of policies, regulations, guidelines which must be provided at the earliest. This mix must cover the whole gamut of regulatory and policy related issues like spectrum management, licensing framework, maintenance and antenna adjustments and provision for speedy redressal forum etc. These are the key areas where solution of the root problem can be traced and all these pieces will have to fall in place to improvise this issue. Sweeping change in the connectivity problem and addressing it promptly is the most appropriate way to answer this call to action.