Mobile Mayhem

Tower shortage, spectrum crunch and an X factor – why call drops are common in India

While even the prime minister has felt compelled to urge action to stop call drops, the problem is not going away any time soon.

The scourge of phone calls on India’s mobile networks getting cut mid-conversation has become so bad that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has expressed concern about it. Observing that call drops affect the common man, Modi asked the telecom ministry to address the issue urgently. After all, the prime minister will find it tough to sell his vision of Digital India with high speed digital highways and cyber security innovation if we can’t get a basic phone call right. But call drops are not going away any time soon.

First, there is the question of whose court the ball is in. Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has said that the government has done its part and will continue to do what it can to enable mobile service improvement. Telecom companies say that the shortage of telecom towers and of spectrum, coupled with fears of radiation and an over-zealous radiation emission cap on towers is hampering their efficiency.

In an audit of telecom companies performance for the quarter ended March 2015, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India found that 23 of 184 2G operators overshot a cut-off rate for call drops. The regulator’s benchmark for call drops is less than or equal to 3%. Three networks had a rate that exceeded 2%. According to the TRAI audit, Aircel is one of the worst performers having call drops of more than 3% in 16 service areas with the rate as high as 18% in the North East. In comparison,  BSNL had more than 3% call drops in five circles and Vodafone and MTS in one circle each.

What really is a dropped call?

The audit numbers, as bad as they are, may still be and underestimation of the number of dropped calls. The reason is that what telecom operators report as a dropped call is very different from what a customer understands as a dropped call, said Kartik Raja, founder and managing director of Phimetrics Technologies.

“When I can’t hear you and the line just goes mute, but my phone shows that the call is still on, from a network point of view it is not a call drop. For the network, only when they receive a message saying the call is dropped, it is counted as a call drop,” Raja said.

Phimetrics conducted a study of telecom voice services, which began by defining a dropped call from a customer’s point of view rather than use a telecom company’s definition. The criterion was to count a call as dropped if the two users can’t hear each other for more than 10 seconds. Suddenly, Raja found, dropped call rates of 2% and 3% looked more like 5% and 15%. That’s how dire the problem is.

Not enough spectrum, towers

India's telecom operators have the lowest access to spectrum in the world. In addition to that, spectrum in India is extremely fragmented, which constrains use of data. “If you want to move from 2G to 3G or 4G mobile broadband, you need to have a 5Mhz chunk of spectrum. It won’t work if you have five chunks of 1Mhz each,” explained Mahesh Uppal, director of telecom consultancy firm Com First. “Some of the bands of spectrum are extremely fragmented, especially 1800 Mhz that is need for 4G.”


Telecom operators are packing base transmission stations – what we call telecom towers - into populous urban areas, all drawing from the small chunks of spectrum available there. But India doesn’t have nearly enough towers for current mobile usage or future growth. At present there are about 4,25,000 towers across the country. Hemant Joshi, telecom analyst and partner Deloitte, Haskins and Sells, estimates that for our current use and growth we need at least 1.00,000 more. Uppal thinks the requirement is closer to 2,00,000.

Several telecom tower sites have even been lost to the bogey of radiation. In 2012, the government reduced the electronic frequency limits of radiation to one-tenth of the existing limits. “This has created a sudden situation where the capacity has reduced and the traffic is increasing,” said Joshi. “You have networks on which voice [usage] is growing modestly and the data [usage] is going through the roof.”

The reduced radiation limit, which is also one-tenth of the level that the World Health Organisation thinks is permissible, was criticised by the organisation’s own environment coordinator.

Dropped calls in off-peak hours

While the main culprits seem to be the spectrum and tower shortage, they aren’t the only reasons for dropped calls. The Phimetrics study shows that 36% of call drops occurred in areas with good network and one-third of call failures occurred in off peak hours. “Operators are making a lot of revenue from data now. So a lot of spectrum is being allotted to 3G rather than 2G, to data rather than voice. That’s primarily the reason this sudden increase in call drops has happened,” Raja said.

The telecom regulator is willing to reassess the measurement of call drops and has called for new consultations into the issue. The telecom ministry, meanwhile, is considering financial disincentives for call drops. It isn't easy to pin down the reason for call drops, said Uppal, and if the government levies penalties service providers are likely to contest that they alone are responsible for call drops possibly leading to protracted litigation.  “Penalties will be counterproductive, in my opinion. They will help no one, not even the government,” he said.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

In a first, some of the finest Indian theatre can now be seen on your screen

A new cinematic production brings to life thought-provoking plays as digital video.

Though we are a country besotted with cinema, theatre remains an original source of provocative stories, great actors, and the many deeply rooted traditions of the dramatic arts across India. CinePlay is a new, ambitious experiment to bring the two forms together.

These plays, ‘filmed’ as digital video, span classic drama genre as well as more experimental dark comedy and are available on Hotstar premium, as part of Hotstar’s Originals bouquet. “We love breaking norms. And CinePlay is an example of us serving our consumer’s multi-dimensional personality and trusting them to enjoy better stories, those that not only entertain but also tease the mind”, says Ajit Mohan, CEO, Hotstar.

The first collection of CinePlays feature stories from leading playwrights, like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Dattani, Badal Sircar amongst others and directed by film directors like Santosh Sivan and Nagesh Kukunoor. They also star some of the most prolific names of the film and theatre world like Nandita Das, Shreyas Talpade, Saurabh Shukla, Mohan Agashe and Lillete Dubey.

The idea was conceptualised by Subodh Maskara and Nandita Das, the actor and director who had early experience with street theatre. “The conversation began with Subodh and me thinking how can we make theatre accessible to a lot more people” says Nandita Das. The philosophy is that ‘filmed’ theatre is a new form, not a replacement, and has the potential to reach millions instead of thousands of people. Hotstar takes the reach of these plays to theatre lovers across the country and also to newer audiences who may never have had access to quality theatre.

“CinePlay is merging the language of theatre and the language of cinema to create a third unique language” says Subodh. The technique for ‘filming’ plays has evolved after many iterations. Each play is shot over several days in a studio with multiple takes, and many angles just like cinema. Cinematic techniques such as light and sound effects are also used to enhance the drama. Since it combines the intimacy of theatre with the format of cinema, actors and directors have also had to adapt. “It was quite intimidating. Suddenly you have to take something that already exists, put some more creativity into it, some more of your own style, your own vision and not lose the essence” says Ritesh Menon who directed ‘Between the Lines’. Written by Nandita Das, the play is set in contemporary urban India with a lawyer couple as its protagonists. The couple ends up arguing on opposite sides of a criminal trial and the play delves into the tension it brings to their personal and professional lives.

Play

The actors too adapted their performance from the demands of the theatre to the requirements of a studio. While in the theatre, performers have to project their voice to reach a thousand odd members in the live audience, they now had the flexibility of being more understated. Namit Das, a popular television actor, who acts in the CinePlay ‘Bombay Talkies’ says, “It’s actually a film but yet we keep the characteristics of the play alive. For the camera, I can say, I need to tone down a lot.” Vickram Kapadia’s ‘Bombay Talkies’ takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as seven personal stories unravel through powerful monologues, touching poignant themes such as child abuse, ridicule from a spouse, sacrifice, disillusionment and regret.

The new format also brought many new opportunities. In the play “Sometimes”, a dark comedy about three stressful days in a young urban professional’s life, the entire stage was designed to resemble a clock. The director Akarsh Khurana, was able to effectively recreate the same effect with light and sound design, and enhance it for on-screen viewers. In another comedy “The Job”, presented earlier in theatre as “The Interview”, viewers get to intimately observe, as the camera zooms in, the sinister expressions of the interviewers of a young man interviewing for a coveted job.

Besides the advantages of cinematic techniques, many of the artists also believe it will add to the longevity of plays and breathe new life into theatre as a medium. Adhir Bhat, the writer of ‘Sometimes’ says, “You make something and do a certain amount of shows and after that it phases out, but with this it can remain there.”

This should be welcome news, even for traditionalists, because unlike mainstream media, theatre speaks in and for alternative voices. Many of the plays in the collection are by Vijay Tendulkar, the man whose ability to speak truth to power and society is something a whole generation of Indians have not had a chance to experience. That alone should be reason enough to cheer for the whole project.

Play

Hotstar, India’s largest premium streaming platform, stands out with its Originals bouquet bringing completely new formats and stories, such as these plays, to its viewers. Twenty timeless stories from theatre will be available to its subscribers. Five CinePlays, “Between the lines”, “The Job”, “Sometimes”, “Bombay Talkies” and “Typecast”, are already available and a new one will release every week starting March. To watch these on Hotstar Premium, click here.

This article was produced on behalf of Hotstar by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.