Indian mobile telecom networks added 19 million new users in December. Technology and geography should dictate how many cell towers are needed to carry voice and data among the country’s 562 million subscribers. If only life were so simple. A decade of regulation has created an incredible clutter in the Indian telecom industry that fragments not just networks but the infrastructure and airwaves too. Anyone living in a big Indian city can choose from among 10 mobile service providers, a prospect that would beggar belief anywhere else on the planet. And while the telecom regulator allowed the number of players in each circle to multiply from two to four to six and now to a free-for-all, it steadfastly refused for a long time to allow shared infrastructure in spite of the mindless duplication it would involve.
All this while the municipal authorities went along with the exponential growth in the telecom business in their jurisdictions. Cellular towers are not tiny; when they come up on a building they are there for all to see. It took the local governments of Noida and Delhi 10 years to spot a change in their skyline? The issue of illegal towers gets curious if you consider around half of Delhi’s population — most of them with a cellphone connection — lives and works in unregularised colonies. Curiouser still, when the regulatory reflex on display in the national capital region last month is prompted by lost revenue, not by public health concerns or aesthetics.
The silver lining in all this is that the answers are to be found in the market and technology, not in our city halls and courts. Mobile tower operators have emerged that can address the issue of shared gear by telecom companies. Eventually, the industry is headed for a shakedown. In-building solutions with weak transmitters built into the buildings themselves are being tried out in mature digital economies. Again, low power base stations and optic cable serve the same mobile communications needs with less collateral damage. Every time a telecom company gets a licence the Centre earns a fee, and every time a cell tower comes up the municipality earns a fee. But shouldn’t someone, somewhere be wondering why no bird ever perches on a telecom tower?