Updated: August 31, 2015 12:15:23 am
With the problem of call drops worsening over the last few months, the prime minister, at a high-level meeting last week, highlighted the urgency of finding a solution. To address the scarcity of cell phone towers — there are about 5,50,000 towers in India at present and approximately 1,00,000 more are needed — Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has agreed to allow them to be set up on top of government buildings. He also rightly tried to dispel some of the misinformation on radiation from them. But, ultimately, the ball was placed firmly in the court of the telcos, and they were asked to get their act together. The department of telecommunications is said to be examining the possibility of fining telcos. While it is true that service providers need to fix their networks — in Delhi, for instance, the major players are still grappling with the fallout of the 2014 auction in which they lost spectrum in the 900 MHz band, and new network set-ups take time to optimise — the roots of the present problem, and the solutions, can also be traced back to government policy.
Civic authorities have forced about 10,000 towers to shut down across major cities. The lack of a uniform national policy on the setting up of these towers is a major problem. So while Delhi, Singapore and Shanghai each have about 2.2 towers per sq km, a leading telco in Delhi faces a “load” of about 49 hours per MHz per tower, compared to 8.9 in Singapore and 6.5 in Shanghai. Even though cell phone towers act as boosters and help radio waves travel further, ultimately, only so many of them can be set up before they start interfering with each other. Indeed, though the lack of towers is a serious issue, the nub of the problem is inadequate spectrum — a telco in India has 12 MHz of spectrum compared to the global average of 40 MHz, which means they get less spectral efficiency and need more towers. In large part, this is due to the hoarding of spectrum by the government — for instance, in this year’s auction, the Centre did not put on the block all the spectrum vacated by the ministry of defence — as well as punishing auction rules. While spectrum costs the same in the US and user charges are higher, telcos there can use it for perpetuity, compared to 20 years in India.
Even though the Centre recently approved a spectrum-sharing policy, the rules are too constrictive to bring change. Unless the government sorts out the issue of spectrum shortage, it cannot make progress on the Digital India programme.
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