Citizens' Issues
Call drops to 4G: Full spectrum of bad, good for telecom
A successful auction of airwaves and the launch of 4G services were the high points for India's telecom industry in 2015 even as the lingering problem of call drops and bottlenecks in infrastructure, notably on transmission towers, remained major areas of concern.
 
Early in the year, the country saw the biggest auction of spectrum when the government garnered Rs.1.10 lakh crore ($17.6 billion) to licence 380.75 MHz of airwaves in the 900 MHz, 1,800 MHz and 800 MHz and 2100 MHz bands across 17 out of 22 telecom circles.
 
The telecom service providers that participated in the marathon auctioning were: Idea Cellular, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, Reliance Communications, Reliance Jio, Tata Teleservices, Telenor and Aircel.
 
While the auction was welcomed, since availability of spectrum was a major cause for concern, the high bid prices proved to be a dampener.
 
"The outcome of the auction, in whichever manner, eventually led to significant outflow of funds and further burdened the industry, which remains under a debt of Rs.3.5 lakh crore ($53.8 billion)," Rajan S. Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators' Association of India, told IANS.
 
Mahesh Uppal, CEO of telecom consultancy firm Com First agreed, but said: "The high demand for spectrum made auctions was unavoidable. The challenge is to design better auctions where there is less incentive to bid as high as last time."
 
But the auction over two straight years could not stop the menace of call drops. The problem took such a shape that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi voiced his concern. Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad even said he did not want to be remembered as "call drop minister".
 
The watchdog, on its part, also intervened and in mid-October directed mobile phone operators to compensate subscribers on call drops from Jan 1 at the rate of Re.1 for each failure -- a decision that left the industry upset with legal help kept as an option.
 
There was also a related problem. Across the country, many telecom towers became inoperational as citizens started complaining that radiation emanating from it are health hazardous. This took its toll on telephone connectivity.
 
"The government will have to help by releasing more spectrum and make it easier and cheaper to install towers," Uppal said.
 
"Call drops will be resolved when operators invest in enhancing network coverage. This, in turn, depends on current availability of spectrum, as well as future roadmap in receiving spectrum," Romal Shetty, partner and head for telecom sector with KPMG-India, told IANS.
 
India also tried hard to catch up with the world in telecom technology. Bharti Airtel launched its fourth generation (4G) communications services in 296 towns across the country. Britain-based Vodafone launched the same on Dec 14, while Reliance Jio was expected to do so anytime.
 
"The 4G ecosystem is still weaker than 3G. For example, 3G devices are cheaper and more numerous than 4G devices. The 4G technology is new and expensive. The nature and size of customer demand for 4G is unclear," Uppal said.
 
"Internationally, it took three-four years to roll out 3G and 4G services. We are not far back. Issues causing delay have been obtaining towers, right of way, RoW (right of way to deploy some crucial infrastructure) and power availability," Mathews said.
 
"The availability of affordable smartphones has been another major constraint. Now that some of these issues have been addressed, we should expect to see rapid roll-out of 3G and 4G services," the association chief added.
 
Another trending activity was tower sale by various operators. Industrialist Anil Ambani-led Reliance Communications signed a non-binding pact with the US-based Tillman Global Holdings and TPG Asia to sell its nationwide tower assets and related infrastructure for an undisclosed amount. Industry sources valued it at Rs.22,000 crore (nearly $3.4 billion).
 
State-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam also got Cabinet approval to hive off its tower assets into a separate company. BSNL's chairman-cum-managing director Anupam Shrivastava told IANS that the valuation of it could be in the region of Rs.20,000 crore ($3 billion).
 
Among the big ticket mergers and acquisitions was Reliance Communications' accord to acquire the Indian telecom business of Russia's Sistema, which operates under the 'MTS' brand, in a unique stock-cum-spectrum-fee payment deal.
 
The government also allowed spectrum trading in India to help telecom companies to buy and sell unused radio waves from each other, without waiting for the next round of auction. Also, spectrum sharing was allowed by the government, which is expected to improve the quality of telecom services.
 
Highlights of telecom industry in 2015:
 
* Biggest spectrum auction over 19 days mopped up $17.6 billion
 
* Government allowed spectrum trading and sharing
 
* Watchdog directs operators to compensate for call drops from Jan 1, 2016
 
* Tariff on national roaming sharply cut
 
* Service providers gear up for 4G launch
 
* Global leader Foxconn to invest $5 billion to make devices in India
 
* Debate starts over net neutrality with draft note awaiting government nod
 
* Mobile number portability made applicable pan-India
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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Water on Mars, new human relative made science headlines
When it comes to science, exploring the future and digging into the past are equally crucial to enable the human race to learn, survive and thrive. Here, 2015 will be remembered for two path-breaking discoveries - the presence of water on Mars and discovery of a brand new human relative.
 
In its constant search of alien life in space, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in September obtained the first definitive signs of liquid water (briny) flowing intermittently on the surface of the Red Planet.
 
In a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the team led by Lujendra Ojha, a researcher of Nepalese origin from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, looked at streaks that form on some slopes on Mars during warmer times of the year, having previously suspected they might be caused by flowing, salty water.
 
The discovery hints towards a full-fledged life that may have sustained on the Red Planet in the past.
 
"There is liquid water today on the surface of Mars," Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA's Mars exploration programme, said in a statement.
 
In December, Curiosity found mysterious rocks rich in silica - a rock-forming chemical combining the elements silicon and oxygen and commonly seen on Earth as quartz - bolstering the presence of water on the Martian surface.
 
In September, the world woke up to welcome a new member of the human species that globally made the home pages of all top publications.
 
Homo naledi - a broad-chested fellow who walked upright and had a face with a smile that was probably more human than ape-like years ago - was uniquely adapted for both tree climbing and walking as dominant forms of movement, while also being capable of precise manual manipulation.
 
Lead author William Harcourt-Smith from University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa describes H naledi's foot based on 107 foot elements from the Denaldi Chamber, including a well preserved adult right foot.
 
"H naledi foot shares many features with a modern human foot, indicating it is well-adapted for standing and walking on two feet. However, it differs in having more curved toe bones," Harcourt-Smith noted in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications.
 
In the middle of the year, two big events grabbed the eyeballs. First, NASA's New Horizons probe -- after travelling over 4.8 billion km -- flew past the mysterious Pluto dwarf planet on July 14. Since then, the mission has been beaming a Pluto "treasure trove" to Earth.
 
In what may necessitate rewriting of science books, the probe has returned the sharpest images ever of cratered, mountainous and glacial terrain on Pluto and the best close-ups of the mysterious system that humans have seen for decades.
 
After its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system, NASA has selected the next potential destination for its New Horizons mission - a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto.
 
Later in July, NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the "habitable zone" around a Sun-like star.
 
The newly discovered Kepler-452b is the smallest planet to date discovered orbiting in the habitable zone - the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet -- of a G2-type star, like our Sun.
 
"We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth's evolving environment," said Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis leader at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
 
The International Space Station (ISS), with humans on board, turned 15 in November, enabling research breakthroughs and driving technology innovations that will provide benefits on the Earth and enable long-duration human and robotic exploration missions into deep space, including Mars.
 
After having a sumptuous feast of "Outredgeous" red romaine lettuce grown in space in August, ISS astronauts were set to witness flowers blooming on the orbiting laboratory after the New Year.
 
"Growing a flowering crop is more challenging than growing a vegetative crop such as lettuce," said Gioia Massa, a NASA Kennedy Space Center payload scientist.
 
In December, with the opening of hatches between the ISS and an arriving Soyuz spacecraft, three new Expedition 46 astronauts joined the three ISS residents to continue key research that advances NASA's journey to Mars while making discoveries that can benefit humanity.
 
Highlights:
 
* After 10 years, NASA's New Horizons probe flew past the mysterious dwarf planet Pluto on July 14.
 
* NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the "habitable zone" around a Sun-like star in July.
 
* The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in September obtained first-ever definitive signs of liquid water flowing intermittently on the surface of present-day Mars.
 
* In September, scientists unearthed a new member of the human species called Homo naledi who walked upright and had a face with a smile that was probably more human than ape-like years ago.
 
* The International Space Station (ISS) with humans on board turned 15 in November,
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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NASA suspends 2016 launch of key Mars mission
In a setback to future Mars exploration, NASA has decided to suspend the planned March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission to Mars.
 
The decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in a section of the prime instrument in the science payload, the US space agency said in a statement on Tuesday.
 
“We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science but space exploration is unforgiving and the bottom line is that we're not ready to launch in the 2016 window,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.
 
“A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months, but one thing is clear: NASA remains fully committed to the scientific discovery and exploration of Mars,” he added.
 
The instrument involved is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a seismometer provided by France’s Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES).
 
Designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom, the instrument requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.
 
“InSight's investigation of the Red Planet's interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator.
 
Mars retains evidence about the rocky planets' early development that has been erased on Earth by internal churning Mars lacks.
 
“Gaining information about the core, mantle and crust of Mars is a high priority for planetary science, and InSight was built to accomplish this,” he added.
 
A leak earlier this year that previously had prevented the seismometer from retaining vacuum conditions was repaired, and the mission team was hopeful the most recent fix also would be successful.
 
However, during testing in extreme cold temperature (-45 degrees Celsius), the instrument again failed to hold a vacuum.
 
NASA officials determined there is insufficient time to resolve another leak, and complete the work and thorough testing required to ensure a successful mission.
 
“It’s the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built. We were very close to succeeding, but an anomaly has occurred, which requires further investigation,” said Marc Pircher, director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Centre.
 
“Our teams will find a solution to fix it, but it won’t be solved in time for a launch in 2016,” Pircher noted.
 
The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
 
With the 2016 launch canceled, the spacecraft will be returned from Vandenberg to Lockheed’s facility in Denver.
 
For InSight, that 2016 launch window existed from March 4 to March 30.
 
NASA is on an ambitious journey to Mars that includes sending humans to the Red Planet.
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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