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Quality Concerns: Operators still off the mark in many cities

March 07, 2016
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Quality of service (QoS) requirements have been in the spotlight in the Indian telecom industry for some time now, even as the government continues putting pressure on operators to reduce call drops. The issue had come to the fore during early 2015 when many subscribers made complaints with regard to network quality. Thereafter, regulatory measures were taken to penalise operators that were not meeting benchmarks, and in January 2016 a compensation mechanism was introduced for call drop incidents. The government began allowing operators to set up telecom towers on its premises and buildings to ease congestion, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) mandated operators to publicly declare the quality of their networks on a regular basis. Despite these efforts, network quality has remained below the benchmarks that were set as operators face the problem of high capex requirements, accompanied with challenges in managing data surge and congestion.

TRAI recently published the findings of the drive tests it conducted across seven densely populated cities between December 2015 and January 2016. These audits were conducted by IMRB and Phistream to evaluate network quality across various parameters, including radio frequency coverage; accessibility of service, measured through the call set-up success rate (CSSR); retainability of service, measured through the dropped call rate; mobility of service, assessed through the handover success rate (HOSR); and voice quality, measured under the Rx quality parameter.

tele.net takes stock of the performance of major operators, comparing the results of the recent drive tests across metro circles with previous drive tests, discussing the key takeaways, and determining the scope for improvement…

Delhi

In terms of coverage, Reliance Communications’ (RCOM) CDMA network ranks the highest, followed by Aircel’s 2G network and Airtel’s 3G network. The coverage of 3G services delivered by all operators, however, remains below that of 2G. In terms of blocked call rates, nearly all operators delivered quality within the benchmark of below 3 per cent in the recent drive tests, the only exception being Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited’s (MTNL) 2G and 3G networks, which delivered rates as high as 27.59 per cent. Similarly, under the CSSR parameter, all operators were well within the benchmark, except MTNL, which had the lowest CSSR of 72.41 per cent on its 2G network.

Many operators have been making significant efforts to reduce call drop rates, and some in the Delhi circle have registered improvements. For instance, Airtel’s dropped call rate on its 2G network reduced from 8.04 per cent in July 2015 to 1.43 per cent in January 2016. Apart from Airtel, only Idea’s 2G network delivered a dropped call rate within the benchmark of 2 per cent. Meanwhile, Vodafone, RCOM and Aircel also managed to reduce dropped call rates on 2G during the given period, but failed to deliver quality within the given benchmark. In terms of 3G, Airtel, Vodafone and Idea delivered a dropped call rate below 2 per cent in their recent drive tests. MTNL, along with CDMA operators, registered a high dropped call rate, implying the lack of network investments for improving QoS.

The HOSR for all operators on their respective networks was noted to be much higher than the benchmark of 95 per cent, with only MTNL’s 2G network displaying a dismal HOSR of 82.63 per cent. Meanwhile, Rx quality, which is required to be above 95 per cent, remained below the benchmark for all operators. MTNL’s 3G network, however, fared better than that of other operators, delivering an Rx quality of 97.8 per cent in January 2016.

Mumbai

Overall, operators in the Mumbai circle delivered a poorer QoS in comparison with the Delhi circle. Under the blocked calls parameter, the rates of all GSM operators were higher than the benchmark of 3 per cent, while CDMA operators like RCOM and Tata Teleservices Limited (TTSL) delivered quality within the given benchmark. Meanwhile, the CSSR performance of key operators deteriorated due to their higher emphasis on data. The CSSR for Airtel’s 2G network declined from 96.98 per cent in June 2015 to 90.97 per cent in January 2016, while Idea’s 2G network delivered a CSSR of 86.08 per cent in January 2016, a steep decline from 97.81 per cent in September 2015. Vodafone remained the only GSM operator in the region to maintain a higher CSSR rate than the benchmark set in the drive tests. In the January 2016 drive tests, the HOSR for nearly all operators remained higher than the benchmark, barring MTNL, which displayed a success rate of 91.14 per cent on its 2G network and 87.45 per cent on its 3G network. This goes to show that all private operators have invested sufficiently in maintaining the coverage of their 2G services.

Call drops continue to be a major issue in the Mumbai circle. All operators, both GSM and CDMA, had dropped call rates that were higher than the benchmark of 2 per cent in the January 2016 drive tests. In fact, the dropped call rates noted on the 2G networks of key operators like Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, RCOM and TTSL in-

creased between June 2015 and January 2016. The highest was noted on MTNL’s 3G network with 15.58 per cent and the lowest on Airtel’s 3G network with 2.86 per cent. The service quality on Airtel’s 2G network deteriorated significantly as the dropped call rate increased from 0.97 per cent in June 2015 to 4.23 per cent in January 2016.

 Kolkata

Among the metro circles, Kolkata registered significant improvements across various QoS parameters between September 2015 and December 2015. Meanwhile, CDMA operators delivered a better overall performance in comparison with GSM operators. Under the blocked call rate parameter, Sistema Shyam TeleServices Limited and RCOM delivered the lowest rates under CDMA. Airtel, Idea and Aircel reduced their dropped call rates from 18.76 per cent, 10.56 per cent and 10.14 per cent to 1.32 per cent, 2.31 per cent and 2.99 per cent respectively during the given period. This shows that GSM operators have attempted to improve the quality of their voice services to be more competitive with CDMA operators in the given circle.

In contrast, the dropped call rate for all GSM operators remained above the benchmark of 2 per cent. Key operators like Vodafone and Airtel registered an increase in the dropped call rate on their GSM networks, from 2.49 per cent and 1.85 per cent in September 2015 to 8.58 per cent and 3.79 per cent in December 2015. Incidentally, these operators also focus heavily on 4G services, due to which they have been unable to manage congestion on their networks. A contrasting trend of decreasing dropped calls was noted on CDMA networks, with operators like RCOM and TTSL reducing these rates from 2.81 per cent and 2.01 per cent in September 2015 to 2 per cent and 0.18 per cent in December 2015.

Another key observation from the De-cember 2015 drive tests was that the CSSRs and HOSRs for all operators on both GSM and CDMA networks were above the benchmark, implying that coverage was not an issue for Kolkata subscribers.

Conclusion

Apart from the metro circles, TRAI recently conducted drive tests in other densely populated cities: Pune (Maharashtra and Goa circle), Bhubaneswar (Odisha circle), Indore (Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh circle) and Surat (Gujarat circle). Across all these cities, operators on GSM as well as CDMA networks delivered dropped call rates above the benchmark, indicating that the issue was not limited to the metro circles. The highest rates were observed in Pune, where TTSL’s 3G network noted a dropped call rate of 42.93 per cent, while Idea’s 3G network reported 20.96 per cent. These findings indicate that while operators have reduced call drops to some extent, the benchmarks are not being met in the metro circles. More efforts are required in the Category A and Category B circles where data users and consumption are both increasing.

The government’s increased emphasis on improving QoS through regular quality checks has pushed operators but they still have a long way to go to reach the benchmark in terms of call drops. Heavy spectrum payments, coupled with investments in 4G infrastructure, have limited their ability to focus on voice services. This issue is not likely to be resolved anytime soon as the auction, expected to be conducted in June 2016, will also affect their finances and lead them to focus on revenues from data services, thereby reducing investments in voice infrastructure.

One emerging observation from the drive tests is that CDMA operators, which still rely heavily on voice services for revenues, are offering competition in terms of voice services to GSM operators, which are currently focused on 3G and 4G networks. This is likely to encourage the latter to improve voice services as they still constitute a major proportion of their revenues. Meanwhile, the recently imposed compensation mechanism will also pressurise operators to improve networks and reduce call drops. Going forward, easing of regulations at the municipal and state levels will be required to enable the setting up of more telecom towers to ease congestion and improve network quality.

 
 
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