NEW DELHI: Consumers in India’s metro and bigger cities are facing ever slowing data speeds and frequent call drops, with congestion in telecom networks running at around 85-90% of capacity and still struggling to cope with the surging consumption of data, driven by low prices.
Average data consumption jumped to 9.5 GB a user from 2.5 GB while voice consumption surged to 820 minutes per user from 400 minutes last year. Voice calls are increasingly being routed as data calls. But the industry only managed to install 50,000-60,000 cell sites in 2018 compared with the need for over 100,000 cell sites to keep pace, industry experts said.
Mobile phone companies and network equipment vendors admit to the mismatch — especially in urban areas — in demand and supply, but blame it on their inability to install telecom towers as needed. They further said that telcos are using technology to try and improve service quality.
“Limited by the spectrum one has, and unlimited on demand is very visible…whoever may say whatever, all networks across the country are practically choked. People like to believe that they are using one eighth of capacity or 50% of the capacity — speeds would have been way beyond if networks were relatively free,” Balesh Sharma, CEO at market leader Vodafone Idea, told ET.
Anshuman Thakur, strategy head of Reliance Jio, admitted to service quality issues but said they were only in pockets. “There are pockets that are more difficult to cover because of the inability to put more towers or other issues…we continue to bring more capacity on our network.”
Airtel didn’t respond to emailed requests till press-time.
Rajan Mathews, director-general of industry body COAI, said that the principal bottleneck that the industry is facing is Right of Way (RoW) clearances for installing new cell sites. “Every telco is facing this …in a few spots, we are running out of capacity,” he said.
Ookla’s co-founder and general manager Doug Suttles said that 4G speeds on average across India have shown limited improvement over a year — the average 4G LTE download speed in India across all mobile carriers was 10.58 Mbps in Q1 2019 compared with 9.84 Mbps in Q1 2018.
“.. While this is faster, the marginal difference to the user experience is quite limited and there is room for improvement,” said Suttles.
And the future doesn’t look better either, experts said.
“When large networks are over saturated, the potential for decline in voice and data availability can increase…As 4G availability increases, so do the number of consumers owning 4G-capable handsets, and as a result, these networks are strained to keep up with the increasing amount of users,” said Suttles.
Mathews said that the industry could see data consumption increase a further 15-20% in 2019, while voice consumption is expected to stabilize at the current levels, with another 100,000 towers needed for service quality to improve.
Huawei India CEO Jay Chen said telcos have to a degree been compelled to compromise on network quality amid sustained financial stress caused by continuing price wars.
COAI’s Mathews countered, saying that despite financial problems, carriers have been continuously investing in radio networks since it is directly related to their respective revenue streams.
“But that’s not enough, given the surge in data consumption and the challenges around installing towers,” said an industry executive.
Both Huawei and Ericsson said that they are working with telcos on technological solutions to improve quality of services. Carriers are resorting to massive MIMO deployments coupled with carrier aggregation and Voice over LTE (VoLTE) deployments to build capacity in the key metro cities that are facing quality service issues.
While Jio offers VoLTE pan-India since day one of commercial launch, Vodafone Idea Limited, and Bharti Airtel are now expanding their VoLTE service in India, another person aware of the matter said, adding that both telcos are now placing only 4G base station orders to improve capacity and coverage.
“VoLTE is proving to be a more efficient technology to free spectrum and build capacity since massive mimo can’t be deployed at mass level,” a senior executive with a leading telco told ET.
Jio’s Thakur said that it has implemented technical solutions to create capacity dynamically. “This (user experience) is priority for us and we have taken care that congestion does not impact user experience.”
Vodafone Idea CFO Akshaya Moondra said the company is building capacity at a rapid pace through network integration of network and spectrum.
Airtel’s chief technology officer Randeep Sekhon said that the telco is adding more spectrum for 4G in metro circles by refarming of airwaves in 2100 Mhz and 900 Mhz bands — historically used for 2G and 3G – for 4G use. “This will also decongest 2G/3G networks that carry a bulk of voice traffic and will also contribute to an increase in traffic VoLTE besides boosting indoor coverage.”
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