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Promising Signals: Efforts on to reduce call drops

May 30, 2017
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By Akanksha Mahajan Marwah

The telecom sector has finally achieved some improvement in its call drop situation. As per a survey conducted by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) through the integrated voice response system (IVRS), the industry posted a 7 per cent decline in call drop instances during January-March 2017. Around 57 per cent of subscribers reported instances of call drops at the end of March 2017 as against 64 per cent in end-December 2016. Further, as per a report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), all operators met the call drop norms during the three-month period ended September 2016.

The improvement, though modest, is encouraging and comes as a major relief to customers. The issue of call drops and quality had brought operators to loggerheads with the government, and had become a key point of policy and regulatory discussions. It also led to a face-off between the operators and mobile handset makers, who blamed each other for the poor quality of service (QoS).

What led to the poor QoS? Over the past few years, the industry had embarked on a data journey with the operator focus shifting from plain voice services to 3G/4G data. The surge in data uptake resulted in severe network congestion as infrastructure growth failed to keep pace with usage. Limited investments in voice networks exacerbated the call drop situation, leading to an alarming rise in such instances during the past year.

Following protracted consultations and deliberations, DoT and TRAI took a number of initiatives to resolve the issue. These included introducing automated call system, real-time monitoring apps and drive tests, which have helped in monitoring operator activity. Further, major policy and regulatory moves pertaining to tower installation and spectrum availability have led operators to take initiatives like setting up new tower sites and upgrading their network infrastructure to improve the QoS.

Network monitoring

The government launched the integrated IVRS or automated call system in December 2016 to get direct feedback from subscribers on service quality. The system makes random calls to subscribers to check the status of call drops. “The results obtained through the IVRS platform and follow-up efforts of DoT and telecom service providers are encouraging,” notes a senior DoT official. According to a recent DoT statement, since the launch of the IVRS, over 1.6 million calls have been made across all service providers. The feedback is shared with operators every week for taking action in a time-bound manner. Operators have set up an elaborate mechanism for using the IVRS feedback data sent by DoT. They contact each subscriber who has reported frequent call drops through phone calls and SMSs in English and local languages, to collect further details for resolution of the complaint. So far, a total of 9,328 cases have been resolved through this initiative. During February 15-28, 2017, as many as 43,403 feedback cases were taken up for investigation by operators. Following phone calls and SMSs to subscribers for additional information, 7,210 cases were identified for resolution. Of these, about 2,467 cases were resolved through the optimisation and rectification of hardware/power issues following field visits. Further, during March 15-31, 2017, DoT resolved around 13,631 cases related to call drops, of which 1,406 cases were resolved through optimisation, rectification of hardware/power problems and field visits, etc. IVRS makes an average of 2,600-2,700 calls every day.

The system is also helping the government identify “blind spots”, areas that have weak signal strength. Operators are informed about these so that they can plan new sites/infrastructure to improve their services. Operators have planned to deploy 987 new sites/boosters, of which 109 have already been installed and commissioned. Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL) has set up 69 of these, Idea Cellular has installed 29 and Bharti Airtel has set up 11 new sites.

As part of its efforts to keep a check on call quality, TRAI has rolled out the MyCall app, which will enable subscribers to rate the quality of a phone call. Users will be able to choose the number of calls they want to rate, with a star rating of 5 implying very good quality. The regulator will leverage crowdsourcing to obtain data. The app is modelled on TRAI’s MySpeed app, which collects data speeds from consumers across the country. For call quality assessment, the MyCall app will require disclosure of several parameters. For example, consumers will be able to decide whether they want to rate all calls or only a percentage of the total number, and when they rate, they will have to disclose whether the call was made indoors or outdoors and specify the geographic location. The data will thereafter be analysed by the regulator. TRAI’s analytics portal records data related to speed, tower-wise call drop rates, signal strength and network utilisation. This data as well as that from the MySpeed app will be made available for third-party use by researchers and other agencies.

Meanwhile, drive tests remain an im-portant tool to audit and assess operator performance on call drops and service quality. These include assessing network performance on various quality benchmarks such as call set-up success rate, call drops, blocked calls and radio frequency coverage. Independent drive tests are distinct from operator-assisted tests. While telecom operators submit performance monitoring reports to TRAI regularly, the regulator undertakes an audit of service quality through independent agencies. The agencies conduct sample tests in various cities across the country. In the past, TRAI has done drive tests in 11-12 cities, and is now planning to cover more cities. The last round of independent drive tests was conducted by TRAI in Amritsar, Delhi, Hyderabad, Bhopal, Chandigarh, Mumbai, Lucknow, Kanpur, Ahmedabad, Ranchi, Darjeeling and Thiruvananthapuram  in 2016. During the past few months, when TRAI did not undertake independent tests, operator-assisted tests were conducted in cities including Mathura (Uttar Pradesh – West circle), Jaisalmer, (Rajasthan), Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh) and Mangalore (Karnataka). TRAI is likely to resume its independent drive tests routine from May 2017 onwards after a gap of more than five months.

Operator-assisted drive tests also capture real-time data to monitor the level of call drops and voice quality. However, they are conducted in coordination with telecom service providers. It is a new concept that involves telecom firms’ equipment and expenditure, with the regulator monitoring and supervising the entire process.

Resolving operator issues

Operators can reduce call drop instances to a large extent by improving radio coverage and expanding network capacity. The network upgradation undertaken by operators in the past has been inadequate to meet the growing demand for voice and data. Operators claim that this is because of the insufficient quantum of spectrum allocated to them. To overcome capacity constraints, a large number of towers need to be set up. However, the unavailability of space for tower installation in prime areas, resistance from public bodies such as resident welfare associations (RWAs), hospitals and schools to telecom towers owing to radiation fears, and issues pertaining to right of way (RoW) and sealing of towers by state bodies result in poor coverage and increase congestion at nearby sites.

Taking cognisance of all these issues, the government has taken several measures to support operators in their network expansion activity. First, the issue of spectrum crunch has been mostly dealt with. The government has declared that after the auctions conducted in 2016, India has become spectrum surplus. Besides, allowing spectrum trading and sharing has helped resolve the spectrum deficit of individual operators in specific pockets. Second, the government notified its RoW policy, which is expected to address the issues pertaining to tower infrastructure build-out to a great extent. In fact, TRAI is now planning to revisit the RoW rules to make IP-1/tower companies eligible to seek RoW permission, which will give a boost to tower infrastructure roll-outs. Third, the telecom ministry has allowed towers to be set up on government premises. Lastly, measures have been taken to reduce resistance from RWAs. TRAI on its part is trying to spread awareness and allay the fears of citizens regarding radiation from telecom towers. This has helped in bringing down the instances of sealing of towers at many places.

Continuous monitoring and a supportive policy environment have led to a record installation of base transceiver stations (BTSs) in the past eight to nine months. Telecom operators reportedly installed more than 160,000 BTSs across the country during June-December 2016, with the aim of deploying 110,000 additional mobile sites by March 2017. The government initiatives have helped operators identify black spots and plan new sites to improve their services.

In 2016, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited invested around Rs 70 billion for the installation of 21,000 new mobile towers to address service quality issues. The company is working on a three-pronged strategy, which comprises network expansion in all circles including the Northeast where the call drop ratio is higher, conducting of drive tests and network optimisation, and infrastructure sharing with private players to further ease network congestion.

Still a long way to go

The aforementioned initiatives clearly indicate that the government and the industry are taking the issue seriously. That said, this is just the beginning of a long and tedious journey as delivering and ensuring quality services to 1 billion consumers will not be an easy task. For instance, while the DoT survey shows a slight improvement in the call drop scenario, the fact remains that 57 per cent of the respondents still face an issue.

Poor indoor coverage has been identified as the biggest pain point by users. To address this issue, operators will have to deploy in-building solutions and small cells, as well as seek ways to offload traffic to Wi-Fi so as to decongest networks. The network can be further optimised by the adoption of self-organising networks, which will allow real-time capacity adjustments in an automated manner. Further, the adoption of modern approaches such as the geographic information system for network planning can prove to be helpful. In addition to identifying appropriate sites for new towers, operators can use 3D map data to study the changing cityscape and realign the network accordingly. Analytics can be used by operators to assess the health of their networks, measure the number of call drops and take appropriate measures.

The poor state of operator finances is another area of concern, which may limit their investment in network upgradation in the near future. Operator results for the last two quarters bring anything but relief regarding the financial health of the sector. Moreover, the entry of RJIL has unleashed a price war in the sector, forcing the incumbents to use up their war chest, which has stalled investments in network upgradation for the time being. A positive outcome of this situation, however, has been a major push towards consolidation, which may help operators fix their network coverage issues. Consumers have faced problems due to sporadic gaps in the radio networks of individual operators, which may get addressed with consolidation.

Mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) arrangements can be another possible solution for enhancing network coverage, particularly in smaller markets. Any brand that wants to provide telecom services without spending a lot of money on infrastructure, network, etc. can explore the MVNO route, although operators have their reservations about the viability of this model given the poor ARPUs.

In sum, DoTs and TRAI are making a noteworthy effort to ensure better quality services and safeguard consumer interests. This will be crucial in realising the vision of a digitally empowered India. Moreover, if the industry wants to consider leapfrogging to 5G, it will have to ensure that its network connectivity and quality are consistent, reliable and robust.

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