There is no burning need for 4G in India: Vodafone technology head

CHENNAI: While lack of spectrum is often cited as the reason for poor service quality by telecom operators, Vodafone India's director of technology, Vishant Vora, says radiation norms and the paranoia around it is also taking a toll. Excerpts:

There are regular complaints about call drops. Continuous 3G connectivity is still an issue, years after launch, even in top-tier cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad. Why is this so?
Bangalore and Hyderabad are particular cases where we don't have spectrum and are using Airtel's network on an intra-circle roaming mechanism. That is why we took additional spectrum in 1800MHz in Bangalore in the latest auction.

In general, networks are under tremendous stress due to intense pressure on pricing, which limits our capital expenditure, the lack of spectrum and also paranoia surrounding radiation, which has created gaps in networks. Our 3G network handles several petabytes of data per month (1 petabyte = 1 million gigabytes) while 2G network is loaded with voice traffic.

Spectrum is a major issue and if government doesn't make access to spectrum easier, it will lead to worse quality. Low average revenue per user (ARPU) combined with high spectrum costs mean that many other operators in India are just bleeding. It's a case of how long they can bleed.

What do you think about radiation norms in India? How has it affected network coverage?
Our radiation limits are 10 times stricter than many developed countries. Due to the paranoia around radiation, we had to remove hundreds of base stations especially in major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. We have lost coverage in many areas and it's hard to get in sites at newer locations. In effect, it has degraded the quality of service for consumers.

Given these conditions, what is Vodafone doing to improve network performance?
There are some mitigating factors like setting up small cell base stations. But you need many of them and that implies more permissions are needed from state and local authorities. Many states and cities have made it extremely hard to set up base stations. Getting Right of Way (RoW) clearance is difficult and many municipalities have asked for exorbitant prices which renders these cities non-viable for such plans.

We want to lay fibre but cities like Bangalore have a moratorium on laying fibre. Even in places where we have fibre, there are cuts due to uncontrolled construction. Last year, we replaced around 1,000km of fibre as it became unusable due to cuts.

Has the growth of 3G played out according to your expectations? At a time when both 2G and 3G are growing, where does 4G fit in?
3G start was slow but it has really picked up in the last year or two. Cost of devices was a major issue but that is getting solved. Also, it is worth noting that data is not a 3G phenomenon alone with almost 50%-60% yearly growth of data on the 2G side.

There is no burning need for 4G. 3G is sufficient for today's market. Customers want a good experience and don't really care for 3G or 4G. However, we are studying 4G and assessing best places to set up networks when the time comes.

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