Mobile telephony, India’s most virtuous revolution of post liberalisation era, has finally landed into a new and bizarre subsidy mechanism. The TRAI’s (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) recommendation to force telecom companies pay back its customers for every call drop is an attempt to barter poor service quality for monetary benefit. With this, the government has, unfortunately, set a unique and worrying precedent, which is bound to have some far-reaching implications on service-consumer relationship beyond the realm of telecom services.
The inadequacy of mobile networks is not so grave a problem which requires major technical intervention or political consensus. A high majority and influential government could have easily helped telecom companies repair the broken telecom network, but the fact is, despite the PMO's (prime minister's office) intervention, the government failed to address the problem of network glitch. It, instead, resorted to payment of subsidies to consumers in lieu of bad service.
The government’s inability to handle the basic infrastructure issue of telecom networks raises serious doubts on the future of the grand vision of Digital India, which requires fast, reliable and digitally-enabled network for the country’s billion-plus consumers to enter the digital ecosystem.
Without going into the technicalities of mobile technology, it is suffice to know that mobile phones work within a 300-3,000 megahertz frequency, although the entire range is not used in India. A basic principle of mobile network is that the minimum frequency band ensures best quality communication. This is why the recent spectrum (frequency) auctions witnessed a lot of competition for the 900 megahertz band, best suited for voice mobile telephony. If a company possesses fewer high quality bands and a larger number of subscribers, call drops are bound to occur.
The mystery of mobile towers, which is a basic component of telecom infrastructure, is interesting. There are 5.5 lakh towers in India to serve 96 crore mobile users. Fewer towers are required for high quality, that is low frequency bands, while high frequency (3G and 4G) bands need more towers to function.
Keeping these basic facts in mind, let us scrutinise the role of government and companies as to how they approached the problem of broken networks.
First, there is the issue of shortage of towers. Mobile companies agree that they need, at present, one lakh more towers to improve network and reduce call drops. Out of that, most towers are required in the big cities. More than enough central and state government-owned property is lying vacant in each district, where such towers can be installed. All that is required is a coordinated administrative effort. An initiative was taken in February, but a so- called agile government could not provide it momentum. It is embarrassing that despite having 13 NDA-ruled state governments, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not avail a few thousand square feet of land for mobile towers in the country.
The second aspect of the problem is that the government allowed companies to take consumers for a ride. Last year, the government touted its spectrum auction as being one of its greatest achievements. It claimed that inadequacy of basic telecom infrastructure has been put to rest forever. The companies got the liberty to share and sell the spectrum among them, and they could also allow other telcos to avail some space on their towers.
Now the PMO and the telecom minister must pose companies tough questions on network expansion. The latest TRAI document confirms that the voice network usage has grown at the rate of 12 per cent per annum in last three years (2013-15), while network (BTS) expansion remained limited to a growth rate of eight per cent only. During this period, data network usage grew by 252 per cent on 3G, but the network grew at a rate of 61 per cent only. This is a clear case of under-investment in network capacities. The recent spectrum auctions may have benefited the government and telcos in terms of revenues and spectrum respectively, but for consumers it has resulted in more call drops and costly bills as telcos have neglected investment in networks.
The government should coerce companies to at least declare their network-consumer proportion so that people do not ride the networks where seats are already full.
Mobile revolution is the only reform in India, which has really transformed the country into being modern. This revolution was first dishonoured by scams and now bad service is going to ruin it. Nobody knows what kind of a Digital India we are going to get but government and TRAI must not presume that consumers prefer monetary compensation over pitiable services. Modern India is ready to pay more for a better experience. Subsidy for bad services is the last thing they would wish for.