Telecom companies need to set up more towers to handle the growing voice & data traffic
Kalyan Parbat & Gulveen Aulakh, ET Bureau Feb 13, 2014, 04.15AM IST
(Spooked by radiation concerns,…)
The ongoing battle for telecom radiowaves, via online auctions, in three of the largest markets in India— Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata—has an intriguing sub-plot: what it means for the tower infrastructure of the two largest incumbent operators there, Bharti and Vodafone.
Both companies have spectrum, as these radiowaves are called, in these cities in the 900 MHz band. If they lose the pitched battle they are engaged in with other operators, chiefly Reliance Jio, to retain this spectrum, they will have to migrate to the 1,800 MHz band. Since this band is a little more than half as efficient as 900 MHz, the migration will need them to invest more in cellular towers to maintain coverage. Such retooling is inconvenient. It's also increasingly difficult, especially in the top 20-25 cities, which are already tower sprawls and whose residents are doing a U-turn on these easy-money propositions.
Reports linking telecom radiation to medical problems, despite assurances from authorities to the contrary, have scared away property owners. Even local authorities have become reluctant to give clearances.
"When the sector was in growth mode, we could easily acquire 1,500 sites a month; now, that has crashed to under 100," says Sunil Kanoria, MD of Viom Networks, India's second-largest tower company, with 42,000 towers in all circles.
For telecom operators, it's a double blow. In urban areas, they are facing consumer ire for congested voice networks and not investing enough in them. And now, they are realising that, even if they want to, they can't do so at will. "We definitely see greater lead times in our current site acquisitions," says a director of a large global telecom operator with a big India footprint, not wanting to be named.
With data consumption rising, this company planned to invest in 8,000 new sites this year to build a robust 3G network. Companies like this are now, instead, considering other options: more tower sharing, another option that allows for remote presence but means laying more fibre, and using wireless networks.
A telecom tower, or broadly a base station, is what enables a call at the local mile. It sends and receives radio signals from a mobile phone. A large number of towers put together form a network. The greater the traffic on a network, the higher the capacity it needs in its base stations to avoid calls not going through or being dropped. But there's no appetite among property owners to have them perched on rooftops.
According to Umang Das, directorgeneral of Tower & Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA), tower infrastructure providers are "literally on tenterhooks as their rollout plans are subject to arbitrary decisions of state authorities and municipalities". TAIPA is an industry grouping that represents tower firms, including Indus Towers, Viom Networks , Bharti Infratel, GTL and Reliance Infratel.
TAIPA says the government has tightened radiation emission rules for towers—dropping limits to a tenth of the international norm—but the message has not gone down to public. "Vast sections of people now, unfortunately, believe towers are dangerous," says a top executive of a leading European mobile operator, who did not wish to be named. Adds nuclear scientist KS Parthasarathy, ex-secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and an expert on electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions: "Public perception on the alleged adverse effects of cell-tower radiation is totally skewed due to motivated propaganda of scaremongers with vested interests out to sell their radio-protective accessories."
The department of telecommunications (DoT), the government entity in charge of setting radiation norms for telecom towers, says its jurisdiction is limited. In an August 8, 2013 letter to chief secretaries of states and union territories, DoT asked them to put no restrictions on tower installations in residential areas, educational institutions or hospitals as radiation concerns had been addressed by lowering limits. "But local municipalities and state authorities continue to follow their own rules," rues Das of TAIPA.
Uma Shankar, joint secretary at DoT, says the issue is more about consumer education. "We issue advisories, but it is up to each state government or local body to define its boundary conditions since there are different levels of concerns (on radiation emissions) across cities and states, and getting permission for setting up towers is under their ambit," he says. Another DoT official, who declined to be named, added that the health ministry must chip in to educate the public and address concerns on tower safety.Prominent resident welfare associations (RWAs), which have been trenchant campaigners against cell-tower radiation, believe telecom companies, DoT and state authorities need to do more to address public concerns. "Although there is no conclusive proof that tower radiation is harmful, people have grown uneasy and are looking for guidance from all government agencies," says Veena Singhal, chairperson of the Pedder Road Residents' Association, an RWA in South Mumbai. "This is especially so after several cancer deaths were reported in prominent bui ldings in upmarket South Mumbai locations, which coincidentally faced buildings with a massive bunch of cellular antennae."
The country's highest court is currently hearing petitions filed by two industry lobbies challenging a Rajasthan High Court order that directed telcos to remove towers from schools, hospitals, jails and heritage buildings. "How do you expect a telecom company in Rajasthan to provide reasonable quality of service, or no drop rates or no channel congestion, if your towers are being removed by courts?" Rahul Khullar, chairman of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, told ET recently. The next hearing of that case is on February 17. Das feels the Supreme Court's verdict could set a precedent on tower location and operations.
Even as that happens, Singhal says, the government and telecom companies need to find ways to reduce towers without compromising coverage quality. The industry is exploring alternatives, starting by sharing capacity more on existing towers rather than setting up fresh towers. Besides that, companies are exploring four other options. One, they are scouting for tower sites in non-residential, commercial zones.
Two, they are looking to offload data traffic on their wireless networks. Three, they are considering innovations like base station (BTS) hotels in places where there are curbs on installing high telecom towers.
Mohit Rana, partner at AT Kearney, a telecom consultancy, says BTS hotels have worked well in Indonesia and can be a solution in India too. It, typically, involves micro antennae installed at low heights and linked through fibre to a centralised location about a km away where base stations of multiple operators are housed. "A BTS hotel can work in a place like Lutyens' Delhi, where there are curbs on building high telecom towers," says Rana.
A fourth option is to set up lowemission micro sites. "A possible solution to mitigate site acquisition challenges could be putting up smaller cells with lower radiation levels, apart from self-certification," says BK Syngal, the former chairman of VSNL, who is now a telecom consultant at Dua Consulting. Since these are smaller than towers, micro sites emit less radiation, but they also offer reduced signal strength, thus affecting coverage.
In Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, much hinges on the auctions, and whether Bharti and Vodafone can retain spectrum in the 900 MHz band. "Where they have to migrate to 1,800 MHz, they will need to reorganise their networks and manage the transition period," says Rana. "However, such reorganisation will not require significant investments in new towers. In dense urban areas, the 900 MHz networks are designed for capacity and can function on 1,800 MHz with some in-fill sites." In the days ahead, the auction results and the court verdict should provide some clarity.