India, which is one of the largest markets for telecom companies, especially for mobile services, is witnessing a decline in subscribers. At the same time, subscriber complaints are skyrocketing about poor service and network quality of all mobile service providers -- Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, as well as state-run telcos in India.
Inspite of paying higher charges for fourth generation (4G) services, subscribers complain that they neither receive the 4G network signal (often enough) nor the desired download speed. So much so that it is getting difficult to even download a photo on WhatsApp or files from your email account.
A simple test will reveal false claims about 4G service by telecom companies. If you set your mobile network settings to long term evolution (LTE) or 4G-only mode, you can easily figure out how often you are without a network signal.
However, if you switch to LTE/3G/2G auto mode, you will immediately receive a network signal. Unfortunately, even on a 4G network signal, there is no guarantee that you would actually receive 4G data speed. This problem applies to all mobile operators.
According to the standard defined by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a 4G network should be capable of a download speed of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for long term evolution (LTE) and 150Mbps, for LTE-Advanced and upload speed of up to 50Mbps. Most Indian mobile subscribers will tell you that the 4G data speed they receive is in few kilobits (Kbps) and almost never in Mbps.
If you ask your mobile service-provider about the poor quality network signal or miniscule data speed you hear many excuses. These include, network coverage issues (I still am unable to understand what exactly this means), higher number of users, number of apps, especially heavy data consuming apps like music or video streaming being used simultaneously by multiple users, and the distance between the user and base trans-receiver station or node (tower). They give these reasons while making tall claims of providing 4G network and great data speed (!) across the country.
Here are some tweets posted by mobile subscribers of three major private operators Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, and government owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) about poor networks, lower data speeds and services…
According to data released by TRAI, as on November 2019, number of wireless subscribers, including 2G, 3G and 4G, declined to 1,154.39 million from 1,183.40 million in October 2019, thereby registering a monthly decline rate of 2.43%. Wireless subscription in urban areas declined to 647.33 million at the end of November 2019 from 662.92 million as on October 2019. Similarly, number of mobile subscribers in rural area also came down to 507.26 million in November from 520.48 million in October 2019. Monthly decline rates of urban and rural wireless subscription are 2.35% and 2.54%, respectively.
There could be two reasons for the decline in number of mobile subscribers. One, the about 40% increase in pre-paid tariff by all telcos while restricting free calls through fair usage policy (FUP). Second, subscribers either preferring to port their number to other operator instead of buying a new subscriber identity module (SIM).
The data from TRAI shows that during November, 2019, about 4.88 million subscribers submitted their requests for mobile number portability (MNP). With this, the cumulative MNP requests increased to 466.62 million at the end of November from 461.73 million as on October 2019 since implementation of MNP.
Also while there may be more mobile subscribers on record, but more than 15% are inactive or not in use. Out of the 1,154.59 million total wireless subscribers, only 84.8% or 979.09 million wireless subscribers were active on the date of peak VLR in November 2019, data from TRAI shows.
If you ask whether the subscriber gets for what she has paid to the mobile service providers and majority will reply in negative. Almost all subscriber witness poor network coverage or signal, which affects call quality and data speed, and frequent call drops across telcos.
One of main reasons for this is poor or outdated infrastructure. And this applies to both private as well public sector units BSNL and MTNL. Telecom service providers had paid huge money to buy spectrum from the government for all 2G, 3G and 4G networks. However, before they could even fully recover the cost for buying spectrum and establishing infrastructure like mobile towers, telcos were forced for upgrade. So without even recovering costs for 2G, telcos paid heavily for 3G and then for 4G. They will again pay more money to buy 5G spectrum.
While telcos were paying huge cost for newer things, they kept alive old infrastructure aiming to recover its costs. As is known, 2G has widespread coverage across India followed by 3G and 4G. Mobile service providers say by keeping 2G alive and kicking, they make sure that the subscriber at least is able to make phone calls and basic internet usage.
Last year in October, Gopal Vittal, chief executive (CEO) of Airtel has told analysts that the telco is in the process of phasing out 3G and plans to focus solely on 2G and 4G. “2G network continues to fetch substantial revenues for Airtel. 2G still has a runway for next few years...we plan to shut down 3G because the revenue from 3G devices was very insignificant; so we took that call,” Mr Vittal was quoted as saying by Mint
Some telcos have claimed that they had switched off older networks and now have only latest network infrastructure. But this claim does not even hold true even in metro and tier-I cities. Elsewhere, the subscriber receives the network that is available at that time, which most of the times is 2G or 3G. If you think, this applies only to rural area, then do re-check. Even in metro like Mumbai, there are certain areas where you will only get 2G or 3G networks.
One may wonder, if there is any solution for this? Unfortunately, there is none. The government, the department of telecom (DoT) and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) try pushing telcos to newer network without even considering the cost factors associated with upgrades.
The National Digital Communications Policy-2018 (NDCP-2018) approved by the Indian government on 26 September 2018 talks about acceleration in migration to 4G and 5G as well as improvement in broadband speeds. For accelerating migration of wireless telecom networks towards 4G and 5G technologies and improve broadband speeds, the policy aims to facilitate fibre to-the-tower programme to enable fiberisation of at least 60% of telecom towers.
Under this policy, the government also aims to provide universal broadband connectivity (and not the download speed) at 50 Mbps to every citizen. It has kept a target of providing 1 gigabits per second (Gbps) connectivity to all Gram Panchayats by 2020 and 10 Gbps by 2022.
While the aim of government is brave to say least, it does not take into consideration the ground reality. So unless, issues like improvement in network coverage, increase in network capacity to accommodate more users and quality of signals, are not resolved there is no hope for connectivity speeds of even 10 Mbps for every subscriber.
Hope the government and the regulator are listening and would act fast. Else it will prove similar to bolting the door after the horse has bolted!