Call drops in India higher than global standards but blame it on poor returns on investment

Both operators and vendors are keen to increase traffic and improve services but there is not enough capital to fund more towers and technology, maintain experts

Call drops in India higher than global standards but blame it on poor returns on investment

Aditya Anand

The acceptable level of call drops by TRAI in 2015 was 2% or two out of 100 calls. The international norm is said to be 3% in 2022 while the telecom industry claims it hovers around 4% in India. But speak to consumers and few of them claim to be satisfied with telecom services.

“I often have to call the same person two or three times before we can complete the conversation. Sometimes I cannot hear the person I have called. At other times the called person cannot hear me. I have often wondered if all three calls are billed and if so how much,” says Asim Chhabra, an executive in a multinational who lives and works in Gurgaon.

When freelance writer Prachi Sibal moved to Mumbai from Bengaluru, call drops became a part of her life. “I use a Bangalore number in Bombay and earlier believed it had something to do with that. Calls often drop right at the beginning. So, you end up saying hello multiple times and calling the other person. It is irritating when they are trying to call you back too because we cannot reach each other,” she says. There are parts of the city like Andheri where I get no network or 3G and struggle to book cabs or make calls, she says.

A 2016 survey suggests that most call drops occur due to interference and other quality-related issues. While lack of spectrum and high user concentration may be to blame for some of these problems, network optimisation can result in a significant reduction in call drop problems, the survey said.

While stand-up comic Abbas Momin and maritime lawyer Pratik Sibal changed service providers by porting their numbers, many consumers have simply secured a second number with a different telecom operator in a bid to make the best of both connections.

“Sometimes even in places like supermarkets, the network would be very poor. If I wanted to call or check with my mother about getting some groceries the WhatsApp messages wouldn’t go out and the calls would not go through. If the call went through, then either she wouldn’t hear my voice or I couldn’t hear her,” explains Momin.

Again, one of the reasons the operators cite is that from September 1, 2013, India has lowered the level signals to one-tenth of the prevailing standard – from 9.2 w/m2 (watt per square meter) to 0.92 w/m2. Accordingly, the large area that one tower covered earlier has gone down. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has always viewed this as a reason for poor signal reception.

“A deterioration in coverage also means the handset will have to work harder at a higher power which will cause greater personal exposure. Also, if the handset operates at higher power, the battery will discharge faster, giving consumers less talk-time or standby time, leading to a weak customer experience,” senior officials say.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has initiated a quarterly analysis called the Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicator Report; the service providers claim they are meeting performance standards and details furnished by Telecommunications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in the Lok Sabha show that telecom service providers installed around 16.82 lakh additional Base Transceiver Stations for 2G/3G/4G- LTE services between March 2014 and March 2022 across the country.

The TRAI report for the quarter ending December 2021 claimed that barring BSNL in West Bengal, the other telecom service providers had met the compliance requirements of their respective licensed service areas, which interestingly only pertains to open locations and not within buildings and definitely not elevators or basements of buildings.

While the TRAI quarterly analysis report is compiled mainly based on information furnished by service providers, the regulator also periodically conducts test drives across various cities and towns in India. Information released by TRAI in January shows that the regulator had chosen Jaipur, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Haldia, Habra, and Ashok Nagar for a previous test drive done in March 2021.

Explaining what is exactly causing the issue of call drops and why Indian subscribers are where we are Pawan Kumar Garg, former wireless advisor to the Government of India says in simple terminology, we can say it is a question of demand and supply. If there is a demand and supply mismatch then it can lead to problems of course.

“In India, the demand is more because most of the operators out of competition or whatever, have offered unlimited call time. As a result of this, the open traffic load on the network increases. These free calls have led to endless phone calls that are a major cause of our demand-side problem,” he says.

Garg, comparing the situation to China which is just as densely populated as India points out that our neighbour to the east does not dole out free calls and the concept of unlimited call time does not exist there. On the supply side, Garg terms this being about the traffic and how much the network can support or afford.

“Capex is something that our telecom service providers are low on. As a result, keeping themselves updated, ensuring their networks are updated, and upgrading their networks to the latest available technology and variant of equipment become difficult to meet,” he adds.

Ravi Prasad a well-known technology consultant for the telecom industry claims that several call drops are also because modern 4G and 5G handsets have only about 15% of the signal reception capability of 2G handsets.

“The older generation of passive external extensible antennae had much better signal reception capability than the modern internal active antennae. And not just that, the metal casing and gorilla glass of high-end handsets also block the signals, compared to the plastic casings of older cheaper handsets,” he claims.

Extension of Wi-Fi network can help, Garg maintains. “If a reasonable number of customers who are within the coverage of their own Wi-Fi networks, they’re called and your traffic gets diverted then the tower gets much needed relief and the overload on the tower capacity becomes far less,” Garg explains.

The operators are also trying to bring in an upgrade to the network, because more efficient networks will give them more traffic capacity considering the spectrum and other such things. Most of the equipment manufacturers are also keen to improve capacity because of the large Indian market. It is in the interest of both to have the network running properly, Garg explains.

India has approximately 5,50,000 mobile towers, and industry associations believe 1,00,000 more will be needed along with newer technology to improve the situation.

Here’s what you can do: TRAI has an app called TRAI MyCall which is a crowd-sourced voice call quality monitoring app. Customers can use it to provide real-time feedback after each call that they complete. The data collated by TRAI is then used to understand the telecom circle and network issues that need to be resolved. This information is also shared with telecom companies to help them enhance the quality of the network. All data shared with TRAI by customers remain anonymous.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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