Recently, Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha said that call drops in India have reduced by 8 per cent over the past year. The minister has also indicated that over 3.5 lakh new towers were added by the telcos
in a year to address the call drop issue.
While the actions of the government must be appreciated, the ground reality is that the call drop menace continues to haunt the subscribers. Is it not intriguing that the call drop issue was allowed for so many years? Neither the telcos nor the regulator TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) were able to envisage the magnitude of the issue, until recently.
The TRAI has made progress in collecting information from the end users by recently launching the Mycall mobile application, available on smartphones. The app specifically asks if the user experienced a call drop and about the person’s location during the call drop—indoor, outdoor or travelling. But then, looping back the subscriber feedback to the telcos and ensuring that subscribers experience better quality in the near future would be the key.
Based on the inputs from subscribers, the TRAI has published a Mycall dashboard, providing a infographic view on the call quality at various locations per telco. Let us take the example of an incumbent telco providing service both in Bengaluru and Chennai. As per subscriber feedback for the past month, Bengaluru seems to be significantly better compared to Chennai. The dashboard provides simple insights like finding the best service provider in a particular location while outdoor or indoor. For example, we can find the best service provider at the Shimoga bus station or at MG Road Kochi. It would be useful if the TRAI can add trends capturing quality improvement over a period of time.
Realising that the call drop situation needs significant improvement, the TRAI has proposed some stringent measures, likely to be implemented from next month. In fact, starting 1 Jan 2018, a graded penalty system is expected to kick in, wherein the telcos will be levied upto Rs 10 lakh per quarter per circle if they fail to meet the call drop benchmark. The unhappy telcos have requested for additional time to adhere to the new norms.
Will the new measure really bring cheer to the hapless subscribers who are constantly experiencing call drops? We need to wait for the next 3-6 months for a reality check. It is important that the TRAI prominently names the telcos which are falling below the benchmark.
While we wait for the call drop menace to end, the telcos are now fighting with the government on the IUC or the interconnect usage charge. The TRAI is expected come up with the final recommendation on the IUC soon.
What is the IUC? It is a charge payable by network provider A (calling party), whose subscriber originates the call, to the network provider B in whose network the call terminates. An IUC of 14 paise per minute has to be paid by A to B. India follows a “calling party pays” model meaning this charge is passed on to the subscriber who is initiating the call. The IUC was reduced from 20 paise to 14 paise in
The TRAI’s recent consultation paper on IUC has evoked a strong response from the telcos. The incumbent telcos like Airtel, Idea, etc. are against the abolition of IUC. They have in fact argued for increasing the IUC to 30 paise. On the other hand, the latest entrant Jio, which has disrupted the market by treating voice call as data, wants the IUC removed. Jio uses Voice over LTE or VoLTE, allowing voice calls through its state-of the-art IP network.
The reason for such a divergent view is simple: India still being largely a voice-driven market, the incumbents would lose thousands of crores of IUC revenue, considering the large base of Jio subscribers who will be calling the incumbents.
In fact, a telco has proposed that two types of IUC must be charged—one for calls made through traditional networks and another for VoLTE networks.
The zero IUC or Bill and Keep (BAK) model allows for calls to be terminated at zero charge. Basically, the telcos recovers their costs from their own customers instead of charging other operators. In a situation where the voice call traffic amongst telcos is roughly similar, BAK would be appropriate.
Reducing the IUC to zero would help the subscribers as the cost of voice call would reduce in the near term. But then, the network has to be maintained and telcos would end up charging the subscribers back at some point.
In the current setup, the TRAI should consider a gradual reduction of the IUC over the next 2-3 years. This will help the incumbents upgrade their infrastructure and stay relevant. The Indian telcos’ financial stress is well known with over Rs 4 trillion debt.
The TRAI should consider linking the IUC to the quality of service provided by the telcos. Of course, the telcos who are not able to adapt to the newer technologies will fall aside.
In addition, the government should take a relook at the regulatory fees imposed on the telcos. The regulatory levies and taxes in India are the highest in the world, with telcos having to pay 25-30 per cent of the gross revenue as tax.
Currently, there is not much to choose between the telcos in terms of quality of service. A recent report states that India’s data download speed is just one-third of the global average and countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan are ahead of us. The telcos would do well, if they stop indulging in price wars and instead focus on providing innovative and best-in-class subscriber experience.
G Krishna Kumar
ICT professional and columnist based in Bengaluru