Optimising network and improving infrastructure are key to solving the problems like call drops besides augmenting network penetration to give access to internet to masses are the main priorities vis-à-vis telecom sector, says RS Sharma, Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, in an exclusive talk with Amresh Srivastava. Excerpts from interview:
The problem of call drop is yet to be solved in our country. The PM Modi had also shown his concerns in the past; even the recent service quality audit of TRAI has reflected the dismal picture despite the Government’s tough stand on the issue. How do you react to this scenario?
Calls drop on all mobile networks, everywhere in the world. However in India, the problem is a lot more acute as almost everyone has observed. The underlying issues for the large number of call drops that we see in India are several. These inter alia include inadequate infrastructure, improper optimisation of networks, investment in infrastructure lagging behind the demands on the network due to the growth in consumers; closure of towers due to various reasons; network congestion hardware failure; etc.
Our effort is to work with the industry and address all of these issues to ensure that the mobile telecom network is robust and provides consumers high quality services.
The Telecom companies say that the TRAI formula for compensation is not implementable… Will your compensation proposal solve the issue?
The compensation regulation simply seeks to offer the consumers a notional compensation of Re 1 for each call drop, subject to maximum of 3 call drops a day. The liability for compensation is on the originating network operator and becomes due only if the outgoing calls drop on the originating network.
Questions were raised about whether it was implementable? We have responded to the technical issues raised by the service providers. The mechanism we have proposed is both - technically and administratively - feasible and implementable. Today, it is nobody’s case that the same cannot be implemented.
Some issues were raised that there is a quality of service parameter governing the call drop rate and they already face disincentives, which they pay to TRAI, if they do not meet the QoS standards. In this regard all that I would like to say is that regulatory latitude in performance parameters does not absolve the service providers from a liability to compensate paying consumers for poor quality services. If a consumer is paying 100 percent of the tariff agreed to with the service provider, it is incumbent on the part of the service provider to give him the quality of service contracted for.
Operators are saying call drops are because of restrictions imposed on putting towers to improve connectivity. Do you think they are right or there are other reasons?
There are several reasons for call drops; though the TSPs have installed additional towers, but the growth of BTS sites has not kept up with the growth of the subscriber base.Further, in some of the major towns, there are objections raised by resident welfare associations for installed mobile towers, because of mounting fears about radiation, transmitting from the towers and the perceived health hazards associated with the same. Both TRAI and the Government are taking steps to address this issue.
We have initiated a public interaction programme, through public meetings and newspapers advertisements, educating people that there are no health hazards from mobile towers and there is no need to fear their installation or request for their closure. The Government has already opened up all Central Government buildings for location of towers and has also written to the State Governments to do the same. The Department of Telecom is monitoring the performance of the mobile towers and addressing concerns of citizens regarding adverse impact on their health from these towers. Some local bodies have made rules for tower location…. We expect these to be reasonable and to be adhered to.
As I have mentioned earlier this is not the only reasons for call drops, higher network efficiency can be obtained through optimisation of the network. We have actually come out with a Technical Paper on the various causes due to which calls drop and have suggested ameliorative action for each. It is of course for the network operators to take action and ensure that call drops do not reach unacceptable levels.
There are some opinions that the Per Second billing can be a better solution? If Yes, Will that be enough?
Per-second billing simply means that the bill to be paid will be on actual length of communication by a consumer on a mobile network charged on the basis of each second of time consumed on the network. This removes the perception that the TSPs may possibly earn undue amounts on per-minute or on 30-seconds billing plans. However, this does not take into consideration the quality of the service actually provided, the frustration faced by the consumer in having to repeatedly dial a number to complete a conversation and the wastage of time in doing so. A telecom consumer pays money to be able to call and complete a conversation; it is just not for connection to a network. No, per second billing does not offer a solution to the issue that we are aiming to resolve through our call-drop compensation regulation.
Some telecom experts say that the telecom-companies have neglected 2G and 3G infrastructure and now looking at 4G to earn more profits. Please comment.
Earning more profits by deploying latest technology is something that I do not think is wrong. The latest technologies have significant potential to enable the service providers to provide a wider range of high quality services. So, we have no issues with telcos adopting newer technologies and widening their range of services. Irrespective of the infrastructure that the service providers intend to deploy the quality of service offered to the customer is of paramount importance. If the TSPs upgrade the network and offer better quality services, we support it.
There is a proposal of TRAI where the telecoms will be asked to disclose their network capacity. When is it going to be implemented?
The service providers are already reporting the network utilisation of their networks to TRAI as part of the Performance Monitoring Reports.
Since you were associated the Aadhaar, how do you see the utility of the Aadhaar in the telecom field? Do you think that by making Aadhaar compulsory for mobile connections can actually reduce the security threats, looming over the country?
Aadhaar linkage will go a long way in enabling the faster enrollment of subscribers. This will greatly obviate the need for a large variety of identity documents which cause delay in enrollment of new subscribers. The activation of the subscriptions will be faster and easier with the linkage of Aadhaar. Also since the authentication is through biometric devices, the time taken for the verification process of the subscribers could also be largely minimised. Adoption of Adhaaar will help in digitising the current paper based documentation systems that service providers presently have and improve the recall and recovery of information relating to consumers as and when needed by any Government authority centrally.
Do you feel that in a country like India Internet access needs to be broad-based? How can it be achieved?
There could be no two opinions about the need for a widely available broadband internet access – that reaches right up to the level of each village in India. If, India has to modernise, this is going to be bedrock for such a development. The low penetration of broadband (has to be augmented) which is necessary for both enabling businesses and impacting human life. India today stands at the threshold of great opportunities. A growing and robust economy, a young and increasingly literate population and wide technological base gives it the opportunity of emerging as a major power. World over, it has been recognised that Information and Communication Technologies play a significant role in bridging the divide between the rich and poor. In our country, while voice communication has doubtlessly reduced this divide to a large extent, the penetration of internet and broadband has remained low, mainly due to a limited spread of wire line telephones and non-availability, so far, of Broadband technologies. In India, while we have made rapid strides in the voice segment, the penetration of Internet (302 Million as on August 2015, which includes 100 million broadband connections) has been very low. Broadband penetration is just 9 percent as compared to 80 percent mobile telephones. More than 60 percent broadband subscribers belong to top ten metros or tier-I cities and more than 75 percent connections belong to top 30 cities. Broadband penetration in rural areas has been low. Just 5 percent of the present broadband connections are in rural areas. Broadband is going to play significant role in transformation of telecommunications due to technological innovations, new service offerings, convergence, introduction of smart devices, and change in subscribers’ usage habits. For today’s knowledge based society to grow quickly and to reap the consequent economic benefits, it has become necessary to extend internet and broadband connectivity to every nook and corner of the country. Several countries are investing heavily on building national broadband infrastructure. We are also on our way to develop a countrywide optical fiber network covering all habitations having population more than 500 through the deployment of Bharat Net.
Bharat Net would enable access to and usage of several e-services such as healthcare, education, financial services, agriculture, e-governance and entertainment. It is planned to provide 100 Mbps connectivity at each GP.
The Government’s Bharat Broadband which was initiated with great fanfare was aimed to provide broadband connection to each household but not much has been done so far? Why is it so?
The Bharat Net project is a humongous task with complex logistic and commercial issues to be resolved. A task this huge has various routes for implementation – right from being a completely Government driven activity to something that just the private sector could implement. Both these extremes have their limitations. A purely private enterprise would never find its commercial satisfaction from what would be a low paying consumer base in the villages while a purely Government project will have its cost and timeliness issues.
At present, the project is being implemented by Bharat Broadband Nigam Limited (BBNL), a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) of the Government of India. They are working with several public sector undertakings to roll-out the network. This implementation model is showing all the problems of a public sector run project both in terms of cost overruns and timely execution. As you point out - it has not been very successful.
We, from TRAI, have recently given our recommendations as to how we see this project being rolled out not just in a time bound manner but also how to make it a commercial success. TRAI has recommended that Government adopt the BOOT (build, own, operate, transfer) Model to be implemented through appropriate private-public partners – we see this as being the most effective way to implement this important project in time and within budget.
With the sudden rise in radical influences among the youth through different social medium, like ISIS, the security agencies are facing challenges in tracking those resorting to this. As a nodal person of the regulatory authority, do you think that the Government should ask the companies to provide proxy servers in India?
Use of social media or for that matter other modes of communication to carry out nefarious activities certainly needs to be addressed by the security agencies. TRAI is a carriage regulator and not content regulator, i.e., monitoring of the content flowing through that network. It is for the Government to decide how best it can monitor and protect the security interests; we will certainly contribute in implementation of the decision, if that requires the various service providers in India to set-up and maintain certain network equipment within our borders.