Tracking the call drops issue: how radiation fears play a major role

The telecom sector needs TRAI to impose standardized regulations for setting up infrastructure to address the call drops issue.

In November last year, TRAI released a technical paper on the increasing prevalence of call drops, and asked the telecom service providers to counter the call drops problem by installing more towers and upgrading their infrastructure. This was followed up by a mandate in January this year, that required telecom operators to compensate consumers for call drops. In February, TRAI conducted on ground tests for call drops and noticed an alarmingly high prevalence  of call drops by all operators in all circles.

In March, the Supreme Court demanded an undertaking from telecom operators that the call drop rate would not exceed the 2 per cent limit. Telecom service providers replied that the call drop issue was taken up as a populist measure, and blamed the service providers for problems that were not really theirs. The telecom service providers were of the view that the call drop penalty was unwarranted.

Image: PTI

Image: PTI

The Cellular Operators Association of India which represents a number of telecom service providers petitioned to the supreme court in April, claiming that the rate of call drops never exceeded the 2 per cent limit set by TRAI. In May, telecom operators again approached the supreme court for waiver of the penalty, citing a number of reasons that had put undue pressure on the sector. These included huge investment in infrastructure, and large spectrum costs that left the telecom operators in debt. In May itself, the call drop penalty was axed, and the telecom service providers moved on to start fixing the "real issues" with quality of service. Airtel even used the opportunity to spin the ruling to its favor, by volunteering to self regulate service quality.


Communication Minister Ravi Shankar directly monitored call drop by conducting drive tests in Delhi

However, TRAI was persistent. It asked the government to give it the powers to impose penalties on call drops. This followed the failure of some operators to stay below the threshold on a fresh round of tests. There is pressure on the telecom service providers to improve on the quality of service from the consumers, from the media, from TRAI, and the top levels of governance. The Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad himself took up the issue, and said that he had an open mind to allow the TRAI to impose penalties on telecom service providers for dropped calls. The telecom service providers seemingly found a crafty work around, where the call remained artificially connected despite being dropped. This provoked the ire of the telecom minister who asked the Department of Telecom to look into the matter.

The telecom service providers are facing pressure from the TRAI, the Communications Minister, and the General Public over the issue of call drops. However, there is a uniform response from the Cellular Operators Association of India, as well as individual service providers such as Airtel and BSNL. They blame irrational radiation fears for the increase in call drops. The towers are costly to set up, and require considerable investment. However, the state bodies take down these towers using a variety of approaches. These include disconnecting electricity supply, sealing the premises and dismantling the towers. Sealing of towers in Delhi by municipal authorities were responsible for 20 per cent of call drops. Setting up the towers again takes time, in the range of a year, and these random take downs leave holes in the network.


A COAI workshop on Tower Installation in Ahmedabad Credit: COAI

There is also a problem in installing towers in residential areas, forests, protected areas such as historically important places, educational institutions and hospitals. There is no standard in the application process followed by local bodies. Infrastructure improvement projects also frequently end up cutting fibre connections, affecting the quality of the network. Additionally, there is no current national policy on installing cell sites in government lands, commercial as well as residential complexes or defense areas. BMC in Mumbai imposed limits based on excessive radiation concerns of residents.

Local authorities impose arbitrary policies and fees for installation of new infrastructure, including towers and fiber connections. After licenses to frequencies expire, they are swapped with other ferquencies, and the time provided after the expiry of licenses is very little for the infrastructure to switch to the newer frequencies. The biggest issues here is the irrational fear of cell phone tower radiation, and the lack of a unified policy for installation of towers in urban areas.


Cell phone towers like this in urban areas are subject to random takedowns because of radiation fears

TRAI has showed its willingness to respond to the concerns of the telecom operators as well. A recently released a consultation paper addressing this exact issue, one of standardized regulation of in-building access to telecom operators to install towers. A common all India policy will give consumers some measure of assurance that the installed infrastructure is within safe radiation limits. Cell phone tower radiation is non ionic, which is not the kind of radiation known for causing cancer. The towers are harmless according to the telecom operators.

If and when the policy based on this consultation is passed, it removes one of the biggest roadblock for improving quality of service. It also enforces a uniform policy to prevent situations that lead to a fall in performance in telecom service quality in the first place, because of random tower shut downs. This is a win-win situation for TRAI, the telecom service providers and the consumers. Only those concerned with the health effects of cell phone towers will have a problem with this solution.

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