In Search Of A Lost Signal

Traffic jam? Emergency? Don’t count on your mobile. We’re heading for a half-billion mobile subscribers with a spotty, overloaded network. Prasanto Roy talks about India's 'cell' woes....

| Updated on: Jan 27 2009, 18:47 IST

Traffic jam? Emergency? Don't count on your mobile. We're heading for a half-billion mobile subscribers with a spotty, overloaded network...Prasanto Roy tells us....

I'm replying to my BlackBerry mail and SMSs under a small banyan tree. Two colleagues are making calls under the same tree, and a few waiting 'outside' to 'get in'.

What's with the tree? Well, it's the only place we've found a usable GSM phone signal. I'm in an 'offsite' at King's Sanctuary, a 50-acre resort near the Nagarahole forest tiger reserve in Karnataka. As with most such places, the only mobile signal is BSNL's. There's some Reliance and Tata Indicom too, but we're mostly GSM users.

BSNL does not do roaming arrangements with other mobile operators. Spun off from the erstwhile DoT, it pines away for the monopoly era when it was the only operator (other than MTNL), and India had 20 million phones. Then came cellphone networks, privatisation - and competition, and India now has over 300 million mobile phone connections.

The great thing about BSNL is that it's got the widest reach among mobile phone operators. Go to the remotest jungle or mountain, and if you find a mobile signal, it will probably be BSNL's.

The silly thing about BSNL is not that it wants to use this as a differentiator, but that it thinks it needs to be cut off from other operators to prove its point. It's the only signal in remote places, so it hopes that city folks will therefore also switch to BSNL.

Well, we don't. We choose our operator based on other factors, such as service in the home base, roaming and data and other services.

There are 25 of us in this resort now who would have roamed into a BSNL network, and made lots of long distance calls and SMSs, if BSNL supported roaming interconnect. Some time ago we calculated that in a particular month, we would have used 50,000 worth of BSNL services just at various office meets.

The good thing is most operators are not as silly, and so we have mostly-seamless mobile roaming across Indian cities and towns.

Mobile rage
"Hello? Are you there?" "Hello? Hello? Hell-ooo? $^@%#!" That's the modern-day mobile conversation in India.

Remember the good old days? Ten years ago, you could complete every mobile call. Even five years ago. Yes, the call cost more. But it worked.

India has grown from zero to 300 million mobile phones in 12 years. It entered the top five club in 2005, and is at second place after China.

But in the race toward network expansion, the casualty was 'QoS' - quality of service. That's a measure of the ability to make a call when you want to (without 'network busy' messages), to have a clear conversation without dropouts, loss, 'latency', echo or distortion, to be able to send an SMS anytime, and have it delivered right away.

Some tradeoff is likely with wild growth. Airtel, Reliance, Hutch, Idea and others have their hands full, notching up some 8 million subscribers a month. The Hindustan Times' January 20 mobile user survey noted that users are unhappy. Three out of five users face call drops, two out of five have billing issues, and as many said they would change their service provider if they could keep the same number. (Mobile Number Portability, or MNP, is 'just around the corner' for several years now.)

Telecom monthly Voice&Data's annual mobile user survey noted this month that Airtel, BPL, Idea, MTNL and Spice fell short of the user satisfaction benchmark set by TRAI, India's telecom watchdog body. (The surprise was newcomer Virgin Mobile, which topped user satisfaction in India.)

On 'customer care', none of the 11 players, including topper Virgin, made it to TRAI's benchmark. On billing integrity, the toppers were Virgin, Vodafone, BSNL and Reliance.

It is in the interest of operators to invest in quality of service. There's a churn in frustrated subscribers, especially some of us folks who use a lot of services and long-distance calls - and who depend heavily on their mobile phones. I'm waiting for MNP to force change - with the mere threat of our switching loyalty.

It's not just in the hands of the operators. There's a severe lack of spectrum, or radio space, in India. Much of it was usurped by the military. There's little 'space' left for the millions of users being added, or for high-bandwidth services like broadband data, multimedia, or next-gen 3G services.

So what can you do if you have service issues? Call your operator. Escalate. And if you've been there, done that, check your rights (

Finally, it's competition and customer pressure that will get the operators (and the government, sitting on spectrum) to change - and provide a happier experience along India's mobility journey.

Prasanto K Roy ( ) is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Voice&Data and Living Digital

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First Published Date: 27 Jan, 18:41 IST