Solving call drops: Long term thinking and collaboration

Solving call drops: Long term thinking and collaboration

Solving call drops: Long term thinking and collaboration

Anyone with a mobile subscription has experienced the annoyance of calls suddenly being terminated.  On October 16, 2015, TRAI issued an amendment in Telecom Consumers Protection Regulations — in which it added a rule mandating telcos to pay Re 1 for each call dropped due to their mistake with a cap of Rs 3 per day.  This was heavily contested by the telecom companies, who have even taken the matter to the court.

Last week, TRAI reported results from an independent drive test, conducted at seven cities to assess various aspects of network condition such as radio frequency (RF) coverage, call set-up success rate, call drop rate, voice quality, blocked calls among others. Globally, two per cent call drop rate is accepted as a reasonable Quality of Service threshold.  Results indicated that dropped calls still remained a cause for concern in India, as they are above two per cent in some cases.

Telcos have disputed various aspects of the independent drive tests. They have represented that TRAI should withdraw its report, given that results from their own tests are at odds to that of the regulator. TRAI has indicated that it has already taken inputs from telcos, that it stands by the tests it has already conducted and that it will proceed to further extend its testing in April 2016.

The debate over the report and the matter of charging for call drops takes focus away from the reality that call drops do occur, that it is more than most global networks and urgent steps need to be taken to resolve. But would charging for call drops help resolve the situation?  Are they taking focus on long term solutions?

To address call drops, one must understand why they occur. A call drops when there is a network black-spot — a section of the coverage area which is not covered by a radio signal coming from a tower.  It may also occur during a call being handed over from one site to another (such as when a subscriber is travelling) or from one frequency band to another (for instance from 900 Mhz to 1800 Mhz) or from one GSM standard to another (such as 2G/3G/4G).  For obvious reasons, the issue is more pronounced in vast rural expanses, mountainous regions, dense urban jungles and indoors.

A simplistic view of the solution is to deploy networks so that there are no black-spots. Further, lesser the handovers between different frequency bands or GSM standards, lesser the incidence of call drops.

Deploying networks in a geography as large as India has a number of challenges.  Moreover, it is a function of spectrum available and capital expenditure (CAPEX) budgets with telcos. Both are a factor of revenue generating potential from the network deployed.  Market determined spectrum prices have increased the strain on the financial resources of telcos — the total debt in the sector was around Rs 3.5 lakh crores in early 2015. This restricts telcos ability to invest any further in capital expenditure.

Moreover, spectrum issued to telcos in India is of smaller blocks and is fractured in nature. Unavailability of contiguous spectrum in large blocks means that more active infrastructure has to be deployed to address channel interference.

Lack of stability

Simply put, telcos have to add more towers so that it can reuse the limited spectrum that is fractured in nature. 

Health concerns arising out of electromagnetic spectrum and right-of-way
concerns while deploying networks have severely reduced the ability of  telcos to deploy towers quickly. 

Moreover, while most countries have had a period of two to three years between stabilising networks under a particular GSM standard, rapid growth in India has limited the ability of telcos to fully stabilise their networks while upgrading and deploying networks under a new GSM standard.

Further, capital expenditure is required to boost network availability indoors and technology has still not matured in this space to an extent that addresses this fully.

Addressing the issue of call drops would require all stakeholders — the government, regulator and telcos to work together.  The government and regulator would need to work with telcos on a spectrum roadmap — that makes it easier for telcos to plan huge capital expenditure. Availability of contiguous bands or large blocks of spectrum would aid the process significantly.  Spectrum trading and sharing guidelines will significantly support this process and this initiative is already welcomed as well as leveraged by telcos.

Telcos, on the other hand, would also need to take some steps towards maximising service areas through existing options.  It may work on balancing traffic between different frequency bands, managing congestion and interference, indoor coverage through latest technologies available etc.  Investments would need to go up to bridge the Quality of Service gaps in lieu of fast growing usage both in data as well as voice.

Prices need revamp

Prices of communication services also need to reach a point at which telcos would be able to invest in building networks of the future. Penal provisions would only increase administrative costs of providing a valuable public service that would unnecessarily increase costs instead of deploying the same in developing world class services.  Instead, the government could assist in providing single window clearances for tower deployment, addressing EMS radiation fears, release of spectrum from the defence sector and providing incentives to build Quality of Service (QoS). 

Most telcos, across the world, have been able to strategically differentiate their services in terms of network quality.  In India too, almost all telcos have identified the sustained deployment and operations of networks as their key priority. 

In the long term, while telcos transform themselves to digital service providers, having a quality world class network would be key.  Only long term thinking and collaboration among all stakeholders will address this.

(The author is Director, Telecom Media and Technology (TMT) practice at KPMG)

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