Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Vodafone, Airtel users may face service glitch as telcos miss deadline to re-configure networks

NEW DELHI: Millions of mobileusers mainly in Delhi and Kolkata are set to face temporary coverage disruptions in the coming months, after the telecom department rejected the request of Bharti AirtelBSE -0.81 % and Vodafone India for more time beyond their November metro licence expiry deadlines to re-configure their networks to the new airwaves that were allotted recently.

While seeking six months of additional time, the telcos had warned that the eight-month delay in the allocation of bandwidth, which they had won in the February auctions, had left them little time to reconfigure their networks in the cities before the expiry next month, which will mean disruption of services.

For Airtel alone, this means temporary disruptions of close to 15 million subscribers in Delhi and Kolkata, circles where Vodafone India has a combined 14 million users, as per the August-end data.

The telecom department rejected the request, reasoning that any extension of airwaves will automatically increase the time frame of the allotment, which is typically for 20 years, a top official told ET.

"These operators are seeking an extension of six months. However, if we do so, they will then effectively get an extension of a total of one year for the spectrum that they won in February," the official said. "There could be some disruptions but the telcos would need to manage it." In Delhi, part of Airtel and Vodafone's airwaves in the efficient 900 MHz band were won by Idea Cellular, while the two telecom operators won Loop Mobile's airwaves in the Mumbai circle. In Kolkata, while Airtel got more airwaves than what it had before the sale,Vodafone won fewer units of the bandwidth.

More importantly, the frequencies of the new airwaves that have been allotted to these operators are different from what they had earlier and technical changes, therefore, have to be made to their respective networks.

"The issue here is that the telecom operators now have to reconfigure their networks to new spot frequencies within the same band," said Rajan Mathews, director general of Cellular Operators Association of India — the lobby group for GSM operators. Hence, even though Airtel lost only 3 MHz from its total 8 MHz holding in the 900 MHz band, the remaining 5 MHz has also changed in terms of the spot frequencies within 900 MHz.

With their reduced airwave holdings, telecom operators need "at least a couple of months just for network optimisation which will require them to assess the total load in a particular service area, the new quantum of spectrum and thus how many more towers are required," said Hemant Joshi of Deloitte Haskins & Sells.

The operators have been crying foul saying they are being penalised for a procedural delay on the part of the telecom department. The regulatory heads of Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular are scheduled to meet telecom secretary Rakesh Garg on Friday to discuss the matter.

Mathews confirmed this. "That is why we were asking the telecom department to expedite the allotment of airwaves to us so that we could reconfigure our networks to the new spectrum. Now we need another six months to do so. Operators are not going to earn any revenue from these swapped and newly allotted airwaves," he said.

The operators that won airwaves in the 900 MHz band in the February auctions were issued the earmarking last week. The earmarking letter gives permission to begin using the airwaves from November 30, coinciding with the date of expiry of the current licence holders to use the airwaves.