Over 55,000 Villages to Get Mobile Coverage by 2018, Says Official

Government will provide mobile connectivity to 55,669 uncovered villages across the country by 2018.

According to a Communications Ministry official as part of the Digital India programme, 55,669 villages that do not have mobile coverage till now will be connected during 2014-18.

The official added that mobile services to uncovered villages will be provided in a phased manner with funding from universal service obligation fund (USOF). He further said majority of the initiatives under the Digital India programme will be realised within the next three years.

“Providing high speed internet and mobile connectivity across the country, providing government services online, promoting electronic manufacturing and creating jobs for youth are some of the priorities of government under Digital India programme. All these initiatives are underway with defined timelines,” he added.

The government has laid optic fibre cable (OFC) in 23,604 gram panchayats till July to provide high speed broadband connectivity under the NOFN project. The target, though, was to roll out the network across 50,000 village panchayats by March 31. As part of the project, all the 2.5 lakh panchayats will be connected by 2016 end.

The national optical fibre network (NOFN) project was conceived in 2011 and deadline to connect all panchayats was fixed by the end of 2013 which was then deferred to September 2015 by the UPA government.

The NDA government revised the timeline for completion of the project and also changed the name toBharatNet. To expedite the work, a committee was constituted to under former IT Secretary J Satyanarayana to suggest alternatives for faster implementation.

After Airtel, Idea to Shift All Prepaid Users to Per-Second Billing

Idea Cellular is shifting its 1.5 million prepaid customers who were on per minute billing (PMB) plan to per second billing (PSB), thus ensuring all its prepaid users pay only for the time they use the network.

Apart from the 1.5 million, who will be shifted over the next 30 days, the rest of its prepaid users are already on per second billing.

The company said that out of its total customer base of over 166 million, nearly 157 million are prepaid.

Bharti Airtel too announced earlier this week that all its prepaid customers will be put on per second billing. The move by mobile operators comes amid regulator Trai’s scrutiny whether there are any tariff plans by service providers wherein call drops actually incentivise or benefit the companies.

“We have always been customer-centric in our approach, offering choice and convenience to customers and hence, we have been providing both PMB and PSB plans to users so far. Henceforth, we will now be offering PSB plan, by default, to our entire base of nearly 157 million existing and new prepaid users,” Sashi Shankar, Chief Marketing Officer, Idea Cellular said in a statement.

With call drops on the rise, Telecom Secretary Rakesh Garg had also said plans where customers get some free minutes and billing is minute-based need to be examined.

The problem of call drops has become acute in the last 3-4 months. The scale was such that last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too voiced serious concern on the issue and asked the officials concerned to take urgent steps to address the problem.

(Also see:  Telcos Oppose Trai Proposal to Compensate Users for Call Drops)

Idea said it has spent Rs. 4,050 crores (excluding spectrum) in 2014-15 and has increased its capex plan for FY16 to Rs. 6,000-6,500 crores.

“The company will continue to invest in expanding its robust network of nearly 1,50,000 cell sites covering over 3,60,000 towns and villages with voice and data offerings on 2G and 3G and roll out 4G LTE services in 10 key markets, starting 2016,” it said.

The company has made a total investment of Rs. 65,094.7 crores in the Indian telephony market so far.

Aircel to Add 13,000 Mobile Sites by the End of 2015

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Mobile operator Aircel Monday said it will expand its network by adding 13,000 2G, 3G and 4G sites across the country by December 2015.

The company, which has pan-India 2G operations, said the plan is in line with the growing demand for mobile services and to offer better customer experience, uninterrupted services and enhanced data speeds.

The company has 3G spectrum in 13 circles and Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) or 4G airwaves in 8 circles. As a part of the plan, Aircel has already rolled out close to 7,400 sites this year and has added approximately 2.2 million hours per day of voice capacity and 200TB/day of data capacity to its network, it said in a statement.

“Aircel consistently upgrades and optimises its existing network to increase capacity, achieve higher efficiency and reduce existing pressure on networks,” the company said. The government has asked all mobile operators to invest in network capacity so as to check the call drops problem.

“Out of the 13,000 sites that will be rolled out, 5,300 sites are 2G and the remaining 7,700 are 3G and 4G sites combined. While the 3G sites are planned primarily in regions such as Chennai, TN, Kolkata, WB and Odisha; the focus for the 2G network expansion are regions such as Delhi, Bihar and Rajasthan to improve network performance,” Aircel Chief Technology Officer Sameer Dave said.

No Phone Signal in a Disaster? Solar Network ‘In a Box’ to the Rescue

Pakistani researchers have developed a portable, solar-powered mobile phone network for use in disasters like floods and earthquakes when regular communications are often disrupted.

Researchers at the Information Technology University (ITU) in Lahore, together with a team from the University of California, have developed a prototype “Rescue Base Station” (RBS) for Pakistan – the country’s first emergency telecoms system that would work on normal cell phones.

“When the RBS is installed in a disaster-struck area, people automatically start receiving its signals on their mobile phones. They can manually choose it and then call, send messages and even browse (internet) data free of charge,” said Umar Saif, ITU vice chancellor and an adviser to the project.

The RBS is a lightweight, compact rectangular box fitted with an antenna, a signal amplifier and a battery, which can be carried easily and even dropped by helicopter in hard-to-reach disaster zones. It has a solar panel to charge the battery, to keep it working in places without electric power.

An alternative communications system like this could help save lives when disasters strike by connecting survivors with rescue workers and government officials.

The RBS has yet to be deployed on the ground, but the ITU expects it to be used in the next six to eight months in partnership with the National Disaster Management Authority and a local telecoms company.

Saif said the RBS signal can be received within a 3 km radius, and people in the area can easily register by sending their name, occupation, age and blood group to a special number.

“This helps generate an automatic database of people in distress, and eventually helps both the rescue and relief teams and the victims,” he said.

Pakistan has 116 million active cellular subscribers out of a total population of 185 million, according to official data.

Information on demand
Potential users of the RBS system can get the information they need in just a few seconds by sending a text message to specific numbers appearing on their mobile phone.

For example, if a person needs to contact a fire brigade, they text the words “occupation: firefighters” to the relevant number. They will then receive names and contact details for local firefighters in just a few seconds and can call for help, Saif said.

Or if someone needs access to blood supplies, they send a message saying “blood group, B positive”, for instance, and receive contact information for people nearby with that blood group, so they can ask for a donation.

Saif said RBS teams on the ground plan to collect information about disaster-affected people in a database, and pass this on to rescue teams, doctors and government departments that can provide assistance.

“(They) can also send weather forecasts and disaster alerts to subscribers, and help them evacuate troubled areas,” said Ibrahim Ghaznavi, an ITU researcher and one of the RBS developers.

The RBS, which operates using open source software, offers all the features provided by regular cellphone companies, he added.

Ghaznavi said it costs around $6,000 to develop an RBS, and the Pakistan prototype has been funded by a Google Faculty Research Award.

Tech innovation
The RBS team is now working with Endaga, a U.S.-based company that connects rural communities through small-scale independent cellular networks, and a local telecoms firm to commercialise the project, he added.

The aim of the collaboration is to help phone companies keep their communications systems functioning in a disaster until their regular networks are restored.

Pakistan is a disaster-prone country, which needs $6 billion to $14 billion (roughly Rs. 39,495 crores to Rs. 92,157 crores) to help it adapt to climate change impacts, such as unusually heavy rains, droughts and melting glaciers, through to 2050, according to a 2011 study funded by the U.N. climate secretariat.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies developed a customised communications system called the Trilogy Emergency Response Application (TERA) in Haiti when it was struck by a massive earthquake in 2010.

But that system could only send text messages to its subscribers on their mobile phones, unlike the RBS which allows users to call, send texts and even browse the web for free.

Cutting-edge technologies like the RBS could help save more lives by delivering timely advice to disaster-hit people, said Pervaiz Amir, country director for the Pakistan Water Partnership.

“Local researchers should be encouraged to develop innovative solutions to help people in distress,” he said. But the RBS needs to be tested in the field under different conditions before being deployed on a wider scale in actual disaster zones, he added.

Amir said the RBS could be useful for rescue and aid activities, especially in remote rural areas of Pakistan where natural disasters regularly disrupt poor communications systems.

Airtel to Bill Its Prepaid Customers on a Per Second Basis

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Indian telecom major Bharti Airtel has moved all its prepaid subscribers across the country to pay-per-second, ensuring customers pay only for the time they use the network.

The move comes amid regulator Trai examining whether there are any tariff plans by the service providers wherein call drops actually incentivise or benefit the companies. “… starting today it will move all its prepaid mobile customers nationally to the more affordable per-second bill plan… this will help ensure customers pay only for the time they use the Airtel network,” the company said in a statement.

Prepaid customers constituted 94.4 percent of its total user base at the end of June 2015. With call drops on the rise, Telecom Secretary Rakesh Garg had also said plans where customers get some free minutes and the billing is minute-based need to be examined.

Bharti Airtel (India and South Asia) MD and CEO Gopal Vittal recently said about 95 percent plans are second-based, so they don’t earn anything if a call gets dropped.

“While we continue to invest aggressively in our network quality and deploy new sites to further enhance our network presence… we are today taking the lead to move our customers to the affordable per-second plans ensuring they pay only for what they use,” Bharti Airtel (India & South Asia) Director (Market Operations) Ajai Puri said.

Though a large majority of its prepaid mobile customers are already on the per-second billing plan, with this initiative, Airtel will ensure all the prepaid base is moved to the per-second plan, the company added.

“While customer’s standard base rate plans will be shifted to a pulse rate of per-second, they will have the freedom to opt for additional tariff discount packs of their choice for discounted per-second or per-minute benefits,” the company further said.

The problem of call drops has become more acute in the last 3-4 months. Last week, Prime MinisterNarendra Modi also voiced serious concern on the issue and asked the officials concerned to take urgent steps to address it.

DoT Exempts Short Range Microphones, Radars From Licensing

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Government has exempted use of wireless frequencies from licensing requirement for short-range microphones like cordless phones, radars, contact less cards and similar products.

The Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing – the custodian of spectrum – in its latest notification exempted very low power equipment for wireless microphones, that can be used in the frequency band of 36 to 38 MHz, from licensing.

“Microphones in this frequency band are generally used in handheld devices that are used commonly at the time of event management or cordless phones within a premise. The notification will ease import and use of such devices,” international telecom regulatory expert S N Gupta told PTI.

The WPC, which is under the Department of Telecom, has exempted use of short range radar systems in a frequency band of 76 to 77 GHz which are generally used as sensors in automotive vehicles to implement safety features such as collision warning, lane change assistance, blind-spot detection and pedestrian protection.

“These devices are not being made in India at present but the rule with ease of doing business will facilitate in building eco-system around these devices,” Gupta said.

The new notification eases use of contact less smartcards, microwave oven in 302 to 351 kHz frequency band, he added.

As per the notification, equipment including the Radio Frequency Identification Devices operating in 433 to 434.79 MHz will also be exempted from licensing.

“Shopping malls use RFID tags and equipment to detect movement of products. This will also help free use of near field communication technology which we have seen in some smartphones. NFCtechnology is also used at toll plaza for automatic deduction of toll tax from cars without stopping them,” Gupta said. Though the products will not need licence to operate, they will have to get approval once from WPC for their use.

The exemptions, however, will not apply in cases where “specific service licence is required from the central government” and “wherever the use of this band for airborne devices or applications is required”.

Call Drops Problem: Trai Open House Discussion on October 1

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Sectoral regulator Trai will conduct an open house discussion on call drops on October 1 even as it refused to extend the date for sending comments on its consultation paper on the issue.

The last date to send comments on the consultation paper on compensation to the consumers in the event of calls drops is September 21 while that of counter-comments is September 28.

Some stakeholders have sought to extend the last date for sending comments, which have not been agreed by the Authority, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) said in a statement today.

Trai said it will hold an open house discussion regarding the paper on October 1.

(Also see:  Over 17,000 Sites Still Have More Than 3 Percent Call Drop Rate: Report)

The regulator is likely to come out with recommendations on call drops and compensation to consumers by mid-October.

It has proposed that any call which gets dropped within five seconds would not be charged, and in case a call gets dropped any time after five seconds, the last pulse of the call should not be included for the purpose of charging.

Call drops have become a severe problem in recent months and concerns have been raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well, on the issue.

Over 17,000 Sites Still Have More Than 3 Percent Call Drop Rate: Report

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With telcos deploying new towers for capacity and coverage enhancement, there are more than 17,200 sites across the country where the call drop rate is still over 3 percent.

According to the weekly data submitted by operators, at the end of August 30 there were 18.86 lakh base tower stations or sites in India, out of which 35,654 were found where the call drop rate was more than 3 percent.

The operators though have improved performance of 15,549 sites, while 17,201 stations still need to be improved. There are also 2,904 sites where the call volume was very low.

Sectoral regulator Trai measures call drop issue through two parameters – less than or equal to 2 per cent call drops and worst affected cells having more than 3 per cent traffic channel (TCH) drop.

Idea, Vodafone, Tata Teleservices (GSM) and Bharti Airtel have the most number of sites where the call drop rate was more than 3 per cent.

According to sources, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad undertook a meeting on August 26, wherein it was decided that efforts, which are being carried out to address the concerns, should continue.

Telecom Secretary Rakesh Garg has already spoken to the owners of telecom firms including Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel, Anil Ambani of Reliance Communications, and Kumar Mangalam Birla of Idea Cellular, besides the Director of Vodafone Group in London.

Call drops have become a severe problem in the recent months and concerns have also been raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this regard.

Trai will issue final recommendations by mid-October on compensation to be paid by mobile operators to their customers in case of call drops.

The telecom watchdog has already floated a draft paper on the issue and is reviewing the quality of services being offered by various operators.

Spectrum Trading Rules to Be Released by Month-End: Telecom Secretary

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Government will notify spectrum sharing guidelines in a few days while trading rules will be out by the month-end, a top Department of Telecom official said Friday.

Spectrum sharing and trading guidelines will allow mobile operators to better utilise the available airwaves and will help in checking the call drop issue. The norms are also likely to push consolidation in the telecom sector.

“The sharing guidelines have been prepared and sent to the minister for final approval and will be issued in a few days, probably by Monday, while the trading guidelines will come by month-end,” Telecom Secretary Rakesh Garg said on the sidelines of an CII event here.

He added the issue was hanging for a long time and now has been finally approved.

“The government had decided two years back that spectrum sharing and trading will be allowed but even then guidelines were not issued for almost 2 years… now Cabinet has taken a decision for the both,” Garg said.

The government on August 12 approved sharing guidelines that provide operators an alternative to share their unused spectrum with other players. Once these guidelines are notified, telecom operators will be able to share their spectrum holding that will help them in decongesting their networks and provide quality phone call services.

Spectrum trading is an alternative for operators to acquire more spectrum. In this case, a telecom operator can sell its right to use spectrum to another mobile service provider, which is not allowed under spectrum sharing rules.

Telecom Spectrum Trading to Be Allowed at Last Auction Prices

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Telecom companies would be allowed to trade spectrum at a price achieved in the latest auction of airwaves or higher than that, an official source said.

“There has been no change in Telecom Commission’s decision on market-determined price. Price achieved in spectrum auction will be applicable on trading deals throughout that financial year and after that SBI Prime Lending Rate will be added for calculating spectrum price,” a senior government official told PTI.

The government, which approved spectrum trading guidelines on September 9, is yet to come out with details of the much-awaited policy. It is for the first time operators have been allowed to sell rights to use spectrum to other operators.

The Cabinet, on August 12, approved spectrum sharing guidelines, which allow mutual sharing of spectrum. These two guidelines are expected to address shortage of spectrum, improve quality of mobile services and reduce call drops. These will lead to consolidation in the sector. The industry is awaiting detailed spectrum sharing and trading guidelines from the Department of Telecom before they start working on any deal.

“The process for internal vetting and approval is on. Telecom secretary has already held a meeting on this and everything has been clarified. I expect guidelines for both spectrum sharing and trading to be issued very shortly. It should not take much time,” the official said. Deloitte Haskins & Sells LLP Partner Hemant Joshi said that spectrum trading would provide bigger players with congested networks a chance to buy new spectrum and improve the quality of service for customers.

“Spectrum trading would provide exit opportunity to operators who have not been able to build scale in India and have been facing unprofitable operations by selling off their spectrum,” Joshi said.

As per India Ratings and Research (Ind-Ra), with these new norms, the industry could see emergence of four pan-India players – Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, Idea Cellular and Reliance Jio Infocomm – while others may exit.

A report of Bank of America-Merrill Lynch made similar observations, which said RCom could liberalise its 800 MHz spectrum and hand it over to Reliance Jio for 4G services. “Jio could possibly partner with RCom post trading and sharing,” the BofA-Merrill Lynch report by analysts Sachin Salgaonkar and Karan Parmanandka said.

Credit rating agency Fitch said, “Smaller telcos – including Tata Telecom, Videocon Telecom and Aircel – suffer operating losses, are struggling to gain market share, and are saddled with high debt. These businesses could trade their under-utilised spectrum assets with larger telcos in loss-making Indian circles to focus only on profitable ones.”

Videocon Telecommunications Director and CEO Arvind Bali rebutted Fitch observations and said: “I think it’s too early for anyone to comment on our financial and business health. We are a long-term and serious player, and we are here to stay.”