The telecom companies and the government are shaping up for a skirmish on the call drop problem in the major Indian cities which has become another embarrassing show of infrastructure problems in the country.
The government, keen to project India as the place of choice to do business has called up the telecom companies to ensure more calls get through in key office buildings in the heart of New Delhi. These offices include Shastri Bhawan, the Raisina Hill complex that includes the Prime Ministers’ Office and Sanchar Bhawan, the office of the department of telecommunications.
The telecom companies have told the government that it is impossible to improve connectivity there and elsewhere unless they are allowed to build more towers. They also want a national policy for setting up those up. The stakes are high for both.
The telecom operators derive 20 per cent of their revenue from circles like Delhi and Mumbai and Tamil Nadu including Chennai and they would love to have more space to carry more traffic in these high density zones. But the government is certain that some of the call drops happen because the operators do not manage their airwaves smartly. Communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told The Indian Express recently that call drops was a big problem. “But the companies have to manage their spectrum well before they clamour for more”.
In any case Prasad’s ministry has no power to ask states, much less municipalities to abide by any such tower policy even if it were to do so and so is pushing the companies to come up with alternative solutions.
The issue is threatening to become one more scrappy fight between the operators, the tower companies ranged on one side and the government on the other, all paradoxically aiming to help the consumers get better telecom service.
Fights between the government and the companies are not new in this sector and often gets political like the 2G scam.
Aware of the implications the telecom sector associations brought together the chiefs of all the companies to speak to the press on Monday after a meeting with telecom department officials. Speaking on their behalf, Gopal Vittal, MD & CEO of Bharti Airtel said they needed the support of the government and the media to make a policy of building more towers acceptable. Sunil Sood, MD Vodafone India was more direct — saying if there are more subscribers and less towers there will be more call drops.
The tower companies are also scared that municipal authorities should not view the permission to set up towers as a means to generate revenue.
On their behalf, Himanshu Kapania, MD Idea Cellular said this was an unacceptable demand since the telecom sector has already paid Rs 1,09,000 crore for buying spectrum in March 2015 this year.
“Of our total revenue earned nearly 28 per cent goes towards taxes and levies and there cannot be a fresh revenue stream opening for the governments’, he said. More than 2G voice services, the lack of connection is more acutely felt for 3G and 4G services as those need more towers as they ply on bands that travel less across obstructions. These services are also expected to be the profit centres for the sector.
India has one of the worst dropped call ratios in the world — up to 12 per cent against the acceptable 3 per cent of total telecom time in mature markets — as per a recent paper put out by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
A part of the problem has occurred because of activism among a section of the citizens who have petitioned the three municipalities in Delhi to pull down telecom towers. Even promising telecom circles like Jaipur and even Patna face similar activism. But on their part the telecom and the tower companies do not see much virtue in using the same towers.