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Improving QoS: Call drops, network coverage and poor voice quality need quick fixes

September 08, 2016
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The issue of call drops has led to much acrimony across the telecom sector. It has left every stakeholder at loggerheads with other stakeholders. The consumers are unhappy, both with the poor Quality of Service (QoS) and also with the possibility of them being forced to spend more, due to call drops. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is unhappy because attempts to penalise operators for poor QoS have been thwarted by the Supreme Court ruling that it cannot impose penalties.

The operators are unhappy because they say that they are being starved of adequate spectrum and forced to pay exorbitant amounts for the same and therefore, have little cash to spare to improve infrastructure. The ministry is unhappy because the upcoming spectrum auctions could see lower bidding since telecom operators are cash-strapped.

The latest developments involve the TRAI releasing a Consultation Paper, Review of network-related QoS standards for Cellular Mobile Telephone Service where it asks for suggestions for improving QoS.

TRAI has also launched a new portal that allows subscribers to check the quantum of call drops, network coverage and call quality. Users can see the towers in their vicinity and monitor QoS in that area. The data on call drops can also be digitally received. The QoS portal will, therefore, enable consumers to analyse QoS on different networks and foster an understanding of which operator leads in a certain area.

In the consultation paper, the TRAI makes the point that, while on an average, the QoS benchmark is being met, there are individual base transceiver stations (BTS) which have much worse QoS than the benchmark of 2 per cent of call drops or less. According to TRAI, more than 12 per cent of individual BTS have call drop rates that are over 2 per cent and 1 per cent of BTS has call drops of over 10 per cent. This is despite the average rate of call drops across India being acceptable at 0.7 per cent.

In fact, TRAI says that, by and large, operators are meeting the benchmark and QoS may be improving. Between January-March 2016, 2G service providers failed to meet the benchmark only in one out of the 211 cases submitted in a Performance Monitoring Report. In 3G, the service providers failed to meet the benchmark only in three out of the 106 cases submitted.

Another important parameter is the call set up success rate (CSSR), which measures the number of calls that are successfully connected. Here, the criterion is 95 per cent and again, the TRAI says that, on an average, operators are meeting the benchmark.

In 2G, of the 209 cases during January-March 2016, service providers failed to meet the 95 per cent CSSR criteria only in four cases. In 3G, service providers failed in only three of the total of 106 cases. On an average, TRAI says that inter-connectivity is satisfactory. TRAI also proposes to raise the penalties for service providers when they fail to make the QoS benchmarks. It also proposed to have graded “financial disincentives” where the penalties are increased if the performance is worse.

At the same time, operators allege that they are hamstrung and unable to improve QoS due to multiple technical factors and also due to the shortage of funds. For example, the available spectrum is doled out in small slices and there are many players in every circle.  Spectrum sharing and trading could help ease the scarcity but it is a very contentious issue. Anyhow, sharing has been put on hold until the auctions on September 29.

Putting up more towers to propagate signals is also a difficult proposition. Many towers have been shut down by local governments for various reasons and there have also been court mandates against the towers. Courts have responded to protests from residents’ associations, which are apprehensive about radiation-associated health hazards.

The densely populated urban areas, where the call drop issues are the worst, are underserved in terms of towers.  In Delhi, where the teledensity is 222, no operator has an acceptable call drop ratio of less than 2 per cent. There is also no uniformity in terms of the regulations and permissions required for telecom companies to set up towers in municipal areas.

There are roughly 550,000 towers in India and at least another 100,000 towers are required. In a meeting with the Telecom Minister in June, operators committed to set up 100,000 towers in the next 12 months at an estimated cost of Rs 200 billion. They have reportedly set up 48,000 of those towers already. This should help improve the situation.

Operators also say that exorbitant base auction prices for spectrum make it difficult for them to set up more infrastructure. Capex spends are huge, amounting to 73 per cent of the total revenues in the past year. The upcoming September 29 auctions would pull in Rs 5.66 trillion, if the entire 2300 MHz of spectrum is auctioned and allocated at base prices.  That is over three times the total revenues of Rs 1.76 trillion generated in 2015-16. Industry watchers say that operators will bid very selectively, and a lot of the spectrum may not find takers.

In the meantime, consumers remain extremely dissatisfied.  The mobile subscriber base continues to grow and so do the number of smartphone users. Operators have not invested commensurately to increase network capacity to keep pace with subscriber numbers and usage.

In urban settings, most of the subscribers seem to be unhappy. Subscribers cite high level of call drops, poor voice quality and low call connectivity. The dissatisfaction seems to be similar across networks, with similar complaints by subscribers who use different operators. TRAI has received 9,720 complaints for poor services, as per data available till June 30, 2016. In this set, 3,257 complaints have been made against Airtel, 2,130 against Vodafone, 1,526 against RCOM and 997 against Idea Cellular.

Power users, who surf the Internet on 3G and 4G connections also seem to be unhappy, citing slow connectivity, dead spots and frequent disconnections. Some subscribers even accuse the operators of deliberately call dropping (and of favouring post-paid customers over pre-paid) in order to generate more revenue.

Operators have tried to counter such accusations by moving to per second billing systems, where call drops would become immaterial in monetary terms.  In addition, some operators like Vodafone are trying to keep customers happy by offering free talk time for call drops on the prepaid connections.

Operators could also take recourse to technical measures such as Dynamic Channel Allocation, multiple call routing and optimised resource management, besides the usage of mobile signal boosters. Prioritisation schemes like Measured Based Priority Scheme, Call Admission Control, Guard Channels, Handoff Queuing and Auxiliary Stations must be implemented to reduce call drops. However, there is no way of getting around the fact that more towers are also required.

Policymakers and operators must work together to improve the situation. More spectrum needs to be released for commercial use and the government needs to consider models for spectrum trading and sharing.  It would also help if local authorities developed uniform procedures for towers. At the same time, operators have to be prepared to invest more on improving infrastructure and QoS. Finally, all stakeholders need to discuss the issues and cooperate to thrash out viable, sustainable solutions.

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