Issues Around Dropped Calls

A tech friendly prime minister curses his government for the irritation caused by the call drops. The concerned minister asks the telecom regulator to issue guidelines to make it mandatory for the telecom companies to take action. This article is a backgrounder on this issue.

What is a Dropped Call?

A dropped call can be defined as a call disrupted due to technical reasons before either of the party in conversation finished talking. But this is not a standard definition of call drop. In fact, absence of standard definition of call drop which makes the issue worse. What a consumer might think is a dropped call; may not be considered the same by the operator. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Call Drop represents the service provider’s inability to maintain a call once it has been correctly established.

Problem in India and the 2% Rule

In recent years, the problem of call drops in the country has deteriorated. Consumers complain that even after paying for a service, why they should be denied of reasonable call quality? The telecom regulator TRAI had established a benchmark rule that the number of dropped calls should not exceed 2% of all calls. However, when in June / July 2015, TRAI conducted a special drive to assess the problem in Mumbai and New Delhi; it found that the Call Drop Rate of most of the service providers was significantly higher than this <=2% benchmark.

Reasons of Call Drops

There are several reasons for the drop in calls such as lack of radio coverage; radio interference between neighbouring cells; imperfections in the functioning of the network (such as failed handover or cell-reselection attempts); capacity constraints and overload of the different elements of the network (such as cells); antenna related problems; transmission media related problems; unauthorized repeaters etc. These all problems arise mainly due to shortage of two things viz. spectrum and towers.

Role of Radio Spectrum in Call Drops

The Mobile Phones work in the radio waves frequency range of 300 to 3000MHz. However, this entire range is not available to companies, as we all know that radio spectrum is a scarce resource. The shorter is the frequency, better is the quality of transmission. This is why; most companies compete for 900 MHz band instead of 1800 or 2100 MHz. If the companies have too little frequency in the lower bands, the quality of transmission deteriorates. Since India has world’s second largest mobile phone subscriber base after China, most companies here are using the small fractions of the available bands.

Problem of Towers

There are more than half a million towers in India. Mobile towers are essential part of telecom architecture anywhere. The lower frequency bands such as 800 / 900 MHz need fewer towers to travel longer distances. But some services need higher frequencies such as 1800, 2100 or 2300 MHz. The higher we go in the frequency band; the lower will be the wavelength. Thus, signals sent out using higher frequency bands would travel lesser distance than signals sent on a lower frequency band.

This implies that to provide better service at distance, more cell towers are needed because they help radio waves travel better. However, the problem of the industry is that states, local bodies and the resident welfare associations (RWAs) create trouble by not allowing them to increase towers because of the notion of harmful radiations from Mobile Antennas. This is the reason they cite for less number of towers than required in larger cities where most people face call drops.

What is customer’s loss in Call Drops?

If the tariff plan of the company is measured in seconds, neither customer loses nor company gains. However, if the call is measured in minutes or has features such as certain number of free calls; it hurts the customer financially.

How this problem can be solved?

The shortage of spectrum and towers, both are equally contentious issues. The government on its part can increase the available spectrum or allow trading of spectrum to reduce congestion. Regarding towers, the telecom companies need to take permission from the local bodies to expand tower infrastructure. In this context, the central government can ask the states to frame uniform rules and procedures to be followed in matters related to permission of land for towers.

Further, the government must mandate the companies to make the call drop related data publically available. The companies should also come ahead with offers like ‘money back on call drop’.

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