Sunil Sharma, a Delhi-based investment advisor, conducts much of his business over his mobile phone. But over the last year, frequent call drops, patchy connections and difficulty in getting through to his clients have made life difficult for him.
He lost a few outstation clients because of this and now prefers to conduct most of his business over his landlines.
A number of factors – from inadequate availability of spectrum (airwaves that carry telecom signals), sub-optimal utilisation of the available spectrum, court orders shutting down telecom towers on fears that the radiation they emit causes cancer, lack of investments by telecom companies in new telecom towers to address a rising subscriber population to regulatory hurdles – have combined to make life difficult for consumers such as Sharma and nearly every one of India’s 900 million mobile phone subscribers.
There is little hope of any immediate resolution to this problem. The auction of additional spectrum, which was expected this financial year, may get delayed further. Early availability of additional spectrum could ease the situation a little.
Then, there are 425,000 telecom towers in India against a requirement of 625,000 towers. “India needs a minimum of 200,000 additional towers to ensure robust connectivity for calls and data,” said Umang Das, director general, Tower & Infrastructure Providers Association (TIPA).
TIPA is the apex body of telecom tower companies that rents out towers to telcos.
At an average cost of Rs 5 lakh per tower, it will require an investment of about Rs 10,000 crore to bridge the gap.
“Telecom companies are not investing in technologies that can offer optimum spectrum utilisation. They are only adding more subscribers. So, the quality of service gets compromised,” said Saleem Ahemad, vice president of Telecom Users Group, a leading consumer organisation registered with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
He added that telcos use the government’s directives not allowing them to put up towers in certain areas, such as some parts of Lutyens’ Delhi as well as some parts of Mumbai, as an excuse to shut down towers or for not putting up new towers to improve the quality of service. According to a TRAI report, all telcos are performing within the prescribed levels of call drops of less than 2%. But the actual user experience of is very different.
HT contacted all the major telcos – Airtel, Vodafone, Idea Cellular, Reliance Communications and Tata Communications – for their reactions but all of them declined to comment.
“It is lack of spectrum that is creating this problem. In addition, the governments at the Centre and in some states have stringent health and regulatory norms for deployment of telecom towers; so, quality suffers,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI), the apex body representing all telecom operators except Tata Communications and Reliance Communications.
Mathews says it is possible to provide good connectivity, if “the government allow us to set up towers in government buildings with a single window clearance; secondly, it needs to give us more spectrum and educate the customers that there are no ill-effects of radiation from towers.”
He pointed to a Gujarat high court judgment in September that dismissed the plea of some residents of an Ahmedabad neighbourhood who had opposed the setting up of telecom towers on the grounds that transmission of electromagnetic waves could lead to health hazards including cancer.
The prescribed radiation levels from telecom towers in India are one-tenth the global norm. COAI has suggested that the government come out with a new set of emission guidelines that will allow operators to set up more towers.
“The proposal is currently under examination. The technical details need to be verified,” said a senior official in Telecom Commission, the policy making wing of the department of telecommunications.
Meanwhile, Sharma and millions of others like him will continue to suffer.