Telecom companies, activists and government grapple over proliferation of mobile towers
Three cases challenging proliferation of mobile towers to come up in Bombay HC while in Delhi, telcos complain MCD has sealed about 200 towers in last two months.
In some ways, these events, across two cities, exemplify the rough fortnight that telecom companies in India have endured. Last week, the entire cabinet along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi backed the telecom department’s decision to impose punitive measures on ‘erring telcos’ on the issue of persistent call drops.
DEALING WITH SEALING
The telecom companies contend that they aren’t entirely esponsible for calls drops. They attribute limited spectrum availability, an unjustified fear in the minds of the public about the health hazards from mobile towers and overzealous regulation from local governments as causes for poor connectivity. "Municipalities and local governments have started treating us cash generating avenues for business and this is one reason why they start sealing towers between January and March quarter, right before the closing of the financial year," said BS Shantharaju, who heads the country’s largest telecom tower company, IndusTowers, a joint venture between Airtel, Idea and Vodafone.
In a recent letter, six top telecom executives – including CEOs of Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, Idea Cellular, Reliance Communications, Reliance Communications & Sistema Shyam -- have asserted that rampant mobile tower sealing has a direct impact on call drops. The MCD, they wrote, "sealed 16 cell sites n Delhi in the last two days," adding that with "every 40 sites sealed, there is an average 20 per cent increase in call drops".
Last month, the MCD had sealed as many as 70 sites in the capital.
Call drops are also a factor of low spectrum availability, argue telcos. "Firstly, we are starved of spectrum; India has the lowest airwaves per unit population compared to anywhere in the world," says an official with industry body COAI, who did not want to be identified.
Secondly, tower companies and telecom operators also argue that they are finding it difficult to service more and more customers with their limited spectrum, even as erecting more towers is becoming increasingly difficult.
THE PROFIT MOTIVE
The telecom department however says that telcos aren’t doing enough to fix call drops. "We found that there were about four reasons for this increasing problem (of call drops) in the country and at least three of these can be addressed by operators," telecom secretary Rakesh Garg told ET earlier. According to an internal audit by the telecom department, operators weren’t spending enough money on network optimization. Such optimization will dent bottom lines but address call drops.
"If they increase their spending on network optimization, it will improve the situation by as much as 30 per cent," Garg said. Interestingly, the audit also found that telecom companies were diverting bandwidth to high revenue yielding data services at the cost of voice services. This despite telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad insisting that the government has instructed operators to give preference to voice over data services. The audit also revealed that operators are using spectrum meant for voice services to provide the lucrative 4G services. "Operators are now keeping chunks of their 1800 Mhz spectrum for 4G services and not investing in the infrastructure for 2G/voice services," said Garg. The 1800 Mhz band is the traditional GSM band for deploying voice services but is now increasingly being used worldwide for 4G technology.
FEAR IN LUTYENS
"If you don’t allow operators to put towers, how will they provide you connectivity?," telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad asked recently,referring to the fear of radiation that housing societies and local authorities have when it came to installing towers. A good locality to pose this question would be the 'power enclave' of Lutyens Delhi, including the posh South Moti Bagh locality, where the nation’s top bureaucrats stay. The entire locality has just one tower, as bureaucrats don’t want them around.
The credit for that solitary tower, interestingly, goes to the Trai chairman RS Sharma who during his stint as IT secretary fought tooth and nail to get the tower installed. "Mr. Sharma’s perseverance helped install one tower over the building he resides in," a senior bureaucrat who is a resident of the locality told ET. As a result, half of the posh locality has connectivity while the other half doesn’t! The story is more or less the same in any metro city."We are not against towers or telecom companies. We are against the radiation caused by these towers. We are just concerned citizens," said Prakash Munshi, an activist from South Mumbai who has been trying to create awareness on the issue of ill effects of radiation.
So far, there are no conclusive studies that link radiation from mobile towers with health hazards including cancer. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), given the "very low exposure levels and research result collected to date, there is no convincing scien-tific evidence that the weak radio frequency signals from base stations and wireless network cause adverse health effects." "No proof of harm isn’t proof of no harm," counters Munshi, who stays in the posh Malabar Hill area, where Aditya Birla group Chairman K M Birla bought a bungalow for Rs 425 crore last week.
On an average, for a tower to be situated in any residential society, telecom companies pay around Rs 6 lakhs per year per antenna, which is usually distributed among the residents of the society. According to a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) survey, done two years ago, 3,631 of the 4,776 mobile towers in the city were illegal. "There are very few norms regarding the installation of towers and anyway most of them are not followed," said Munshi who had protested against 13 illegal antennas out of 14 on top of Sahyadri Guest House (opposite to Munshi’s residence) and got them removed.
For now, the government has given 45 days to operators to fix the problem at their end while it tries to help them acquire more spots in government buildings to install towers. "The department asked us for a list of government buildings in Delhi where would like to put towers and we have submitted it to the department," a senior Vodafone official told ET.
The department has already written to various chief ministries seeking their cooperation in helping allay public fears about radiation and urging them to help companies install more towers.
"The governments of Kerala and Assam have been particularly helpful towards us," said a senior official at an industry body said. But, given how contrasting the positions of various parties involved in this imbroglio are, it’s unlikely that consumers will be enjoying a hassle free calling experience anytime soon.