Oi Mobile Operators, What’s With The Call Drops?

Posted on June 18, 2016 in Sci-Tech

By Prateek Gupta:

If you use a mobile phone in Bengaluru, Delhi/NCR or Mumbai, chances are that you’re fed up of the frequent call drops. High chances. Personally, since the last six months or so, I feel that it has been a test of patience for me every single day. And the sad state of affairs is that the telecom operators probably don’t even understand how deeply this affects us as consumers. Especially in today’s entirely digital world where an average individual spends around 4 hours a day on his/her smartphone. But if you’re in Bengaluru, this number could be as high as 7–8 hours a day.

You’re taking an interview. Boom! Suddenly the call drops and you don’t remember where you were. You miss the plot and waste five minutes in re-establishing the context. But what’s five minutes of a common man’s day to a multi-billion dollar MNC, right ?

You’re making a call to the customer care of a young e-commerce start-up about the delay in the delivery of a projector, you rented from them. You try for about 10 minutes and it’s busy. Then you get connected and the call drops. And then again the line’s busy. Irritating, right? Replace me with any girl in a molestation/abuse scenario and this customer care with the emergency helpline and play the situation in your head again. Scary. And we thought the primary use of a mobile phone was to make calls.

And the problem worsens in a metro city where almost the entire city runs on start-ups with mobile apps. Everything is happening via internet and not just any, but mobile internet. But when the mobile network itself goes kaput, from where will you get the internet? I have lost count of the number of times a sudden network flip wouldn’t let me book an Ola/Uber/Rapido after I have entered the destination. I have lost count of the number of times I type an email on my phone when I’m in an auto-rickshaw/cab/Rapido and as soon as I hit SEND → Boom! No network.

But what’s a rant going to achieve. Let’s dig deeper and try and understand why this happens.

How Do Mobile Phones Work?

Mobile phones operate using radio waves in the frequency range of 300 MHz to 3000 MHz. Lower bands of the spectrum, such as 900 MHz, are optimal for calling facilities whereas higher bands, such as 1800 MHz and 2300 Mhz, are optimal for data services like 3G or 4G. Rule of thumb is that lower the band, the better is it for call voice quality. Additionally, mobile towers act as boosters which facilitate the smooth and continuous transmission of radio waves.

Now, Why Do Calls Drop?

As much as I could read on the internet, there are primarily two reasons for call drops:

If a company holds too little of the lower bands, the call quality degrades. As the congestion increases i.e. the user to bandwidth ratio, the call drops increase significantly.

Now you would think that a company like Airtel will know what to do about it and solve the issue, right? And what’s the right thing to do here? Invest more in lower bands if you want to improve the call quality. But no, Airtel invested Rs.~30,000 crores in both, the renewal of existing 900 MHz spectrums and for obtaining newer spectrums in the 1800 MHz and 2300 MHz space in last year’s spectrum auction by the government of India. According to Govind Vittal, their Managing Director, that investment practically froze the 20-year roadmap for Airtel. But even after multiple reminders and sanctions from the Telecom Regulatory Authority TRAI regarding call drops since the last 8 months, instead of investing in the lower band spectrums, they’re now looking to buy out Aircel’s 4G Airwaves in the 2300 MHz for a whopping Rs. 3800 Crore.

Now why would you do that if your customers are more frustrated with call drops and 4G adoption is still in nascent stages ? Simple. Who wants to miss the bus? India has 22 telecom circles and Reliance Jio is the only network to have a 4G footprint in all those 22 circles. Airtel has presence only in 15 currently but with this deal it will go upto 18 and close the gap. This is after they purchased Qualcomm’s airwaves in 4 circles and acquired Auguere wireless just months ago, all in the 4G spectrum. It really puts into perspective where their priorities lie.

Mobile Towers
Source: Pradeep Gaur/Getty

Towers play a very critical role in the effective transmission of radio waves therefore, if there is a scarcity in the number of towers, the calls will drop. According to an estimate, India has approximately 550,000 mobile towers, almost 100,000 short of the actual need.

Mind you, India has close to 961 million mobile phone subscribers. And the problem worsens in metro cities because the density of users is very high. Incidentally, Delhi/NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru also top the list in terms of tower shortages. But why is there a shortage in the first place? Telecom companies claim that it’s because they face issues in erecting mobile towers due to oppositions from civic authorities and resident associations due to harmful radiations from these towers. This has become the defacto argument of all telecom operators alike since it gives them an easy way out. In fact, the only thing Airtel has done to address the issue of call drops is to send a mail to all of its customers in July 2015 asking for site suggestions for these towers. What was done after that mail, no one knows!

But even if I buy this argument (even though only 10,000 towers have been shut by civic authorities till now) why is then, there a hesitation in sharing the towers ? This is a common practice in a lot of metro cities across the world. Why can’t two or more telecom operators come together and have joint or shared towers? Plus it takes a lot fewer towers to transfuse a 900 MHz signal than an 1800 or 2300 MHz which means that the call drop problem can be solved if they really want to.

What Can The Customers Do About It?

Nothing! Nada! Zilch! That’s exactly the point. This is where the biggest problem is. We just don’t have an option. All the leading telecom service providers failed the call drop test conducted by the TRAI in December 2015. The benchmark for call drops is 2% in any circle and in reality, it went as high as 23.65% in few circles for a few networks. Imagine that! 1 out of 4 calls every day will get dropped. So essentially, Airtel doesn’t need to work on this issue at all since there is no way I’m switching the network because essentially, all are the same. Equally bad.

airtel girl
The infamous ‘Airtel girl’.

At the end of the day, I will, at least, give it to the TRAI for doing a stellar job on this issue. After multiple reminders to telecom operators regarding the call drop issue, it passed an amendment in the TRAI regulations on October 16, 2015, that the telecom operator has to compensate Re 1 for every call drop with a cap of 3 call drops/day. This amendment was supposed to be effective January 1, 2016 but the telecom operators have given, for the lack of a better term, a royal “fuck you!” to this TRAI notice and have said that they will only compensate if ordered by the court. Touché!

Having said that, TRAI could have done more, like allocating more spectrums to telecom operators by taking a stock of underutilised spectrums especially in the defence sector.

The bottomline is that the telecom operators don’t want to focus on the calling feature of the whole mobile ecosystem at all. Data services like 3G and 4G make more sense financially. After all, watching a video on YouTube in sub-Himalayan ranges is much more jazzy than making an uninterrupted phone call in a metro city!

This article was also published on Medium.