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Growing Disconnect: Industry re-evaluates QoS issues after call drops increase

Discussion Board , November 16, 2015

Over the past few months, there has been an escalation in call drop numbers all over the country. The issue has taken centre stage in policy and regulatory discussions, leading the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to undertake several initiatives for its resolution. For instance, it has proposed to introduce a mechanism to compensate consumers for dropped calls. In addition, the government is planning to make it mandatory for operators to disclose information related to network quality on a regular basis. Meanwhile, operators have been arguing for a more relaxed regime that facilitates the setting up of towers to ensure better coverage, which will lower the instances of call drops. Industry experts discuss the leading causes for dropped calls, the feasibility of implementing a compensation mechanism, and other steps that can be taken to improve quality of service (QoS)…

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What are the key reasons for the sudden increase in call drops?

Rahul Agarwal

Call drops can be due to a number of reasons such as inadequate coverage, capacity constraints and technical glitches. In India, investment in infrastructure has not kept pace with usage. The number of subscribers has gone up. More importantly, the growth in minutes of usage has far exceeded the growth in network infrastructure investment and installation of base transceiver stations (BTSs). Telcos are of the view that the call drops are a result of the surge in usage and data traffic coupled with inadequate coverage due to the unavailability of sites for tower installation owing to radiation fears. Some blame it on spectrum constraints and opine that spectrum trading should be allowed to improve the situation.

Neha Bansal

A potential reason for the increase in call drops, especially in circles like Delhi and Mumbai, could be spectrum refarming by operators. Incumbents in these circles are shifting their GSM customers from the 900 MHz band to 1800 MHz, so that they can use 900 MHz for 3G. This has led to the immediate shrinking of coverage as the coverage radius for 1800 MHz is 80 per cent that of the 900 MHz band. Hence, irregular network coverage results in a higher number of call drops. The sealing of towers has also had an impact. However, the sealing of 300-odd towers in a market with 6,000-plus towers will only have a localised impact and not affect the experience across locations.

In India, data usage has increased exponentially. In the past year, mobile data traffic grew by 74 per cent, and it is expected to grow further from next year onwards. Mobile operators are focusing on providing seamless data services and allocating as much spectrum as possible to data services, as data uptake also pulls up voice usage and enhances the ARPU of existing customers. A reduction in the coverage area or capacity for GSM traffic will have an impact on end-user experience, and also result in dropped calls.

Gaurav Dixit

Over the years, there has been consistent growth in the wireless subscriber base of the Indian telecom market. It reached around 983 million in July 2015, with an overall teledensity of around 80 per cent. This growth is leading to increased voice usage as well as data consumption, while the infrastructure required to support it has not grown at the same rate. As a result, there has been an increase in the number of call drops in most circles, particularly in the metros, as the investments being made in network infrastructure do not match the growth in the usage of these services. As per TRAI, between June 2013 and March 2015, the rise in the minutes of usage for GSM networks was 12 per cent and the increase in 2G data 106 per cent, while the number of 2G BTSs grew only by 8 per cent. Similarly, the growth in 3G data was 252 per cent, whereas the number of 3G BTSs increased by only 61 per cent.

The other major reasons behind the increase in call drops can be the rapid growth in telecom subscribers against the lower and delayed availability of telecom spectrum with telecom service providers; resistance from resident welfare associations (RWAs) against the installation of towers in residential areas due to health issues and radiation fears; the lack of space for new towers in prime locations; and the slow expansion of network infrastructure by telecom players.

Rajan S. Mathews

Call drops may happen for various reasons including limited towers, low spectrum allocation per subscriber, removal of operational sites and the introduction of new technology in a higher spectrum band. These issues lead to service disruption, network congestion and differing coverage experience across spectrum bands. At present, the industry faces the following challenges, which are resulting in call drops:

The fact is that with spectrum constraints in India, a larger number of towers are required for catering to the growing population and traffic while adhering to stringent QoS norms. According to TRAI estimates, there are around 585,000 towers at present and approximately 100,000z more will be needed by 2017. Despite the Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT) guidelines, the disconnection of electricity supply, sealing of premises and dismantling of towers by local authorities are continuing, hampering network connectivity. There have been artificial restrictions on installing towers at educational institutions, hospitals, forest lands, histor-ical buildings and even residential areas. Meanwhile, the sealing of telecom towers results in large areas of lost coverage and increased congestion in nearby cell sites, which, in turn, leads to drastic call drops, causing inconvenience to the public.

What initiatives can be taken by telecom operators to reduce call drops?

Rahul Agarwal

A number of initiatives can be taken by telecom operators and the government to help reduce the number of call drops. Proper network planning and optimisation are extremely important to begin with. Further, operators need to ensure adequate network coverage and should look to install a sufficient number of towers to achieve the same. Investment in infrastructure is extremely important. Moreover, faster migration to 4G/LTE can help manage the unprecedented increase in data traffic, resulting in an improved experience. Also, there is a need to spread awareness and allay the fears of citizens regarding radiation from telecom towers. The appropriate locations for installations should be identified in order to ensure coverage keeping in mind the well-being of citizens. Telcos should also look to improve indoor coverage by using in-building solutions. Further, technologies like Wi-Fi offloading can help ease network congestion and reduce call drops.

Neha Bansal

Operators need to balance GSM services against the data service experience. They will need to deploy additional base stations for providing equivalent coverage on the 1800 MHz band. However, we need to be cognisant of the fact that the optimisation of liberalised bands such as 900 MHz, followed by the planned harmonisation of the 1800 MHz band, has marked the onset of the “GSM switch-off” in India. At the international level, many operators have announced the official switching off of GSM services in markets like the US, Singapore and Australia.

We need to keep in mind the adoption rate and incremental ARPU contribution that would result from using spectrum for one unit of voice, as opposed to data, and how this per unit economics will change if we start carrying voice in the form of data packets.

Gaurav Dixit

Telecom operators need to tackle this issue aggressively. As per a recent independent drive test conducted by TRAI, they have a much higher call drop rate than the prescribed level, which is less than or equal to 2 per cent. Operators believe that the problem lies with RWAs that do not allow the installation of towers due to fears of radiation. They also allege the illegal sealing of towers by local municipal bodies. These issues can be resolved by conducting workshops and starting awareness drives so that the installation of towers can be speeded up. A leading operator recently took the initiative of asking its customers to suggest a suitable area for setting up a cell site if they were facing call drops. Operators can also look at enhancing their R&D in the technological development of cells/boosters in order to improve their range/capabilities and strengthening existing infrastructure. For instant relief from call drops, the deployment of signal repeaters in crowded areas might be a way out.

Rajan S. Mathews

The telecom industry has invested approximately Rs 7,500 billion in the past 20 years to provide seamless connectivity to over 950 million mobile users. The investment has ensured improvements in network coverage, as well as capacity enhancement. Over Rs 1,340 billion was committed by the industry in 2014-15 alone, of which Rs 1,090 billion was invested in the March 2015 spectrum auction and Rs 240 billion in capital equipment by incumbent players.

However, it is a well-recognised fact that, as per international standards, telecom service providers in India have the lowest spectrum holding. Moreover, these holdings are fragmented as they are divided among 7-10 operators in a given circle, and are non-contiguous, which is a basic necessity for high speed data services. Indian mobile operators’ spectrum holding per subscriber is about one-fourth that of Chinese telecom players.

Operators have been working towards improving network coverage and facilitating capacity enhancement by expediting capital investment, optimising networks and rolling out 3G and 4G networks so as to offload traffic from their 2G networks. Special drive tests are being conducted by operators to analyse the reasons for call drops and for radio frequency (RF) optimisation. Operators are also reaching out to customers, seeking their help to identify areas where they face call drops and their suggestions on setting up mobile cell sites. Approximately 70,000 cell sites have been rolled out by members of the Cellular Operators’ Association of India during the first seven months of 2015 alone. The following are the major steps being taken by telecom operators to address the issue:

What is your view on TRAI’s proposal to compensate customers for call drops? What challenges could be encountered in implementing such a mechanism?

Rahul Agarwal

TRAI has instructed operators to compensate users and pay them at the rate of Re 1 per call drop. Compensation may not be the way forward. Instead, measures should be taken to resolve the issue and encourage telcos to invest in infrastructure to ensure an enhanced user experience. Compensation for call drops can result in disputes with users attributing all call drops to the lack of adequate measures by the telcos.

Neha Bansal

Compensating customers for call drops won’t solve the problem. We believe that the issue can be best resolved by the market participants, without significant policy intervention. Consumers have a choice of operators, and there are no barriers if they wish to switch providers.

Gaurav Dixit

In its consultation paper on “Compensation to the Consumers in the Event of Dropped Calls”, TRAI has proposed the implementation of a mechanism for compensating consumers for dropped calls after considering the suggestions of various stakeholders. This initiative is a welcome step as it has further highlighted the problem. However, doing this will also open up the debate on QoS based on the quantum of compensation users get from individual telecom operators as it would be a reflection on the network and service quality. The fair conduct and monitoring of such compensation processes would increase operational expenses for operators and strain their already stressed margins and leveraged balance sheets. Major telecom players might be able to comply but smaller and regionally confined players could find it a challenge.

Rajan S. Mathews

Strict penal action will not fix the underlying problems, which are mostly beyond the immediate control of operators. Resolving the problem of inadequate network infrastructure, mainly cell towers, ensuring the availability of adequate and affordable spectrum, educating citizens on electromagnetic field safety norms to allay fears and opposition to cell towers, addressing the issue of local government delays and opposition to cell towers, etc. are effective ways to address the problem. The industry is ready to make investments in cell tower infrastructure as soon as the bottlenecks are removed. As mentioned above, unless adequate infrastructure is developed, the issue cannot be resolved. Any financial disincentive/penal action will only be detrimental to the growth of the sector, which is already troubled by a plethora of issues, ranging from limited and expensive spectrum, to high regulatory costs and levies, and low returns on investments.

What regulatory steps can be taken to facilitate the provisioning of better voice services?

Rahul Agarwal

The government needs to encourage telecom operators to undertake investments in networks and infrastructure. Having said that, the government should also take initiatives to allay the fears of radiation from telecom towers. While the government did propose to use government buildings as telecom tower sites, it can also bring in regulations to ensure quick clearances for setting up new towers. Releasing a larger quantum of spectrum and offering it to operators is another option and something the industry will welcome.

Neha Bansal

Instead of a compensation mechanism, the regulator can focus on coverage and QoS, and direct operators and original equipment manufacturers to share realised service level agreements. This makes it a B2B transaction, which is more manageable than millions of B2C transactions where an operator identifies the reason for call drops and compensates consumers, leaving multiple areas of ambiguity and contention.

Gaurav Dixit

Voice as well as data services depend on tower infrastructure. Any reduction in network cell sites will disrupt telecom services. In order to provide better services, the government can simplify permission processes or formulate a uniform policy for approvals. It also needs to clear the air about the much-debated issue of radiation fears from telecom towers as this will clear the path for setting up new towers and ensure the smooth working of existing ones. India has one of the strictest radiation norms for telecom towers in the world; around one-tenth lower than the international standards issued by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. The Make in India campaign can be used to invite big technology players to manufacture cell site equipment, which would bring down their costs and help telecom operators spur up the deployment of new cell sites as well as undertake R&D to improve the range of BTSs/cells. The recent announcement of spectrum trading norms to allow telecom service providers to trade airwaves is also a positive move. These steps, along with the proposed compensation for call drops, are expected to facilitate an improved quality of telecom services.

Rajan S. Mathews

The industry will require the support of the government in the following ways:

From DoT:

From the central and state governments, and municipal corporations:

 

 
 

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