Hans Vestberg, Ericsson’s global CEO, had landed in Delhi only 12 hours earlier, late evening on Tuesday. So he could not have seen what was coming. His experience of talking on a mobile phone in Delhi was limited. But those he was addressing at breakfast Wednesday morning, a posse of long-in-the-tooth journalists, had suffered enough from dodgy mobile networks.
Vestberg started in the manner of all global CEOs, giving an overview of his company’s operations in 180 countries, its close link with India because it has been here since 1903, and how promising the future looked given the growth on the anvil.
But the questions, after the perfunctory ones like percentages of revenues and profits coming from India, slowly turned to call drops and radiation from mobile towers. They had to, since 450 million subscribers use Ericsson’s network in this country, across service providers.
The questions came in a flurry:
· What can really be done to reduce call drops?
· Is adding towers and spectrum the only solution?
· Can networks be upgraded to handle this problem?
· Can a network upgrade address the issue without having to add towers and spectrum?
· What will be the cost of this upgrade?
Vestberg often took refuge under “what I can say and what I can’t”, prompting a wit to ask him to list what he could not say. Still, bits and pieces filtered through the statements made by him and his fairly large team that traipsed its way through the questions.
First, it is possible to reduce call drops by upgrading the telecom networks, though it has to be complementary to the efforts to add more towers and spectrum. The network can be upgraded by installing smarter antenna; Ericsson has one whose name abbreviates to AIR (antenna integrated radio). At first, one of the Ericsson’s team members called this antenna “successful”, but later, when asked to define success, he sounded less sure.
The Swedish multinational, truly a global giant with 37,000 patents and 118,000 employees, also talked of in-building solutions, which improves the network inside buildings, where more than half of mobile traffic is generated.
Then there is something called carrier aggregation, a complex technique that makes more efficient use of different spectrum bands.
What will be the cost of any or all of this? That the Ericsson team was reluctant to say.
They were more forthcoming on the issue of the perceived threat from mobile phone and tower radiation, saying India had very stringent parameters and there was no evidence to prove that this radiation, if kept within prescribed limits, was harmful to health.
Vestberg, who was to meet the government later in the day, was asked what he might say if this subject arose, as it was very likely to. “I will tell you after the meeting,” he said.
Later, in the elevator, he was reminded of his promise. Will he remember to call? He managed to traipse through this, too. “I did not tell you when.”