Modi sarkar and telcos have both hung up on the consumers

Do you get full signal on your mobile? Is your data speed fast enough? Have mobile companies started compensating you for call drops? If your answers are a resounding “no” (naturally, they would!) then, more than the government, we ourselves are responsible. We Indians, afflicted with a strange kind of amnesia, tend to forget the audacious promises made by the government and market.

In late August 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed displeasure on call drops during a review meeting on telecommunications. Headlines screamed about him ordering telcos to fix it “urgently”. A prime minister’s office (PMO) statement was also issued with a warning to telcos that the problems on voice network shouldn’t hit the data network, but no update on these “urgent” orders ever hit the headlines.

The call drop problem has actually spread to the mobile internet, where we pay for 3G/4G services, and at times even 2G speed is not available. According to a survey of networks released in March, call drop in India has increased to an average of 4.73 per cent, which is way above the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) specification of two per cent and global standard of three per cent.

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Meanwhile, mobile companies, refusing to accept the principle of paying back customers’ money on bad service, have taken this issue to the Supreme Court, where the TRAI, known for its inept handing of litigation, is being taken to task. However, there is little likelihood of an imposition of penalty.

Showcasing spectrum auctions in 2014 as its greatest success, the government had claimed that telecommunication would flourish by leaps and bounds because the telcos have acquired enough spectrum, and can also share it among themselves to give space to others on their towers. If even after availing enough spectrum, call drops are continuing, the reason for that is telcos have not invested in network.

Between January 2013 and March 2015, the use of voice network climbed by 12 per cent, but the network capacity lagged behind, growing only at eight per cent. According to the TRAI, over the last two years, the usage of data network grew by 252 per cent, but efficiency only by 61 per cent.

If the government had wished, it could have made strict rules to maintain a balance between networks and the number of consumers so that companies do not just focus on only adding new customers, but also feel compelled to make adequate investment in network.

In several cities of the world, telecom networks establish a balance between the landline and mobile so that the dependence on spectrum is limited. The government should work on the return of landline and new intercom technologies which are essential for reducing pressure on the mobile network.

A legal framework with strict penal provisions for errant operators is long overdue. The history of court battles between the regulator and operators in the telecom sector shows that the regulator often loses the battle owing to its inadequate preparation.

On penalty orders against call drops, the Supreme Court has held the TRAI responsible. Surprisingly, on the one hand, the TRAI had made a rule for paying penalty in case of call drops, on the other hand, it said in a research paper last November that technical reasons like a lack of spectrum and insufficient number of towers were also responsible for call drops. Hiding behind this argument, operators are trying to evade the responsibility of improving services and paying penalty for bad services.

Network congestion is going to be the greatest hurdle on the way of making India digital. Despite the prime minister’s intervention, the government has nearly lost the battle to end the menace of call drops. The telecom ministry is left at the mercy of operators who have always been winning court cases.

The government was defeated because it could not show the courage and seriousness of purpose expected to solve the problem. Today, we neither have good service, nor any provision to be compensated for the bad service. We have been cheated both by the market and the government.

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