A basic problem is that the cost of spectrum and licences relative to earnings is too high, structurally, notes Shyam Ponappa.
Will the government's variant of "speak softly and carry a big stick" deliver Digital India in a hurry?
Unlikely, because the problem is an overloaded system with a too-spare design, and insufficient cash flows.
Increasing call drops are a symptom of inadequate carrying capacity for the demands of traffic, from voice to data in 3G and 4G.
These are structural problems, because the system doesn't generate sufficient investible funds; nor are conditions right to develop such investment capacity; nor are the prospects demonstrably healthy.
The situation requires the policy changes outlined below, which only the government can bring about, as it has in the past.
A fundamental aspect of the problem is low spectrum availability. India's operators have 12-15 MegaHertz, compared with a global average of 45-50 MHz.
Leading countries have even more; for instance, operators in Seoul reportedly have 10 times more spectrum than operators in India.
Limiting the spectrum available to operators compels them to invest more to deliver a given level of traffic and quality than if more spectrum were available.
There are other aspects as well:
- high charges for licences and for spectrum, 8+4 per cent of (adjusted) revenues in addition to auction payments,
- imported equipment paid for with a weak stream of local-currency revenues,
- changes in spectrum holdings that require adjustment in equipment after older spectrum assignments lapse and new spectrum has been acquired, and
- the burgeoning need for new investments for 3G and 4G services. Embedded in the latter is the additional overload caused by tower shut-downs and the difficulties in getting additional sites, apart from the need for more capital.
Add regulations that hinder spectrum trading and sharing, and we have a sector that is structurally weak and restricted in scope.
As for call drops, operators in developed markets experienced similar capacity pressures when there was very rapid growth in data usage, for instance AT&T in the US and O2 in the UK some years ago.
The difference is that they were able to invest rapidly to shore up their networks.
By contrast, Indian operators had to invest disproportionately in acquiring spectrum, leaving less capacity for investment in networks.
For example, in 2014 operators in China reportedly invested $35 billion in 4G equipment, whereas in India, only $3 billion went into equipment. Most of its $32-billion investment - $29 billion, over 90 per cent - was for spectrum.
There has also been the diversionary effect because difficult business conditions in the sector led to profits being invested elsewhere, instead of back into communications infrastructure.
The difference in approach and functional capacity is stark: China is moving ahead with building high-speed data capability, while the struggle in India is with dropped calls and simply keeping users connected.
The government, therefore, needs to facilitate conditions whereby operators invest substantial amounts every year.
For this to happen, the structure of high charges for spectrum and licences relative to earnings has to change, as do restrictive regulations.
The monthly average revenue per user in India at the end of 2014 was of the order of Rs 110-120. Capital expenditure ranged from 13 to 15 per cent of revenues in 2014, rising to 20 per cent in 2015.
The latter exceeds the percentage invested in the US - but the revenue in India is about 25 times less than the $50 revenue in America, and the US has had well-developed networks for decades.
Meanwhile, the recent spectrum-sharing guidelines that restrict more than enable effective sharing epitomise our dysfunctional regulations 1.
It is baffling why the government would issue such retrograde regulation if the goal is digital development, because these guidelines do exactly the opposite of what is needed.
Meanwhile, there has been an escalating war of words between the government and service providers.
The latter are trapped in a vicious circle of heavy investment requirement with low revenue-generation capacity, as explained above.
Breaking out of this trap is possible only if the government develops conducive policies, as it did with the path-breaking changes associated with the 1999 New Telecom Policy.
The change at that time was from up-front licence fees to revenue-sharing. It fell short because the government's share was too high, and began to work only after 2003, when government charges were reduced.
In like manner, the government needs to frame policies applying similar principles to spectrum, and ultimately to network infrastructure, so spectrum and networks become more productive.
Our problems arise from three sources: regulations and government charges, operator behaviour and responses, and public opinion and the perceptions and actions of the judiciary.
The government can take the initiative through creating policies that facilitate investment and service delivery. Many changes are purely administrative, such as permitting unrestricted spectrum sharing without additional "conversion" charges, or reducing licence and spectrum charges.
Surely the department of telecommunications, the finance ministry, and the prime minister's office understand the logic of higher net present values that accrue from incremental revenues to operators.
Conversely, any restriction of revenues or opportunity loss reduces the government's share, resulting in lower net present values. For example, restricting 3G roaming or insisting on payments to convert administered spectrum before it can be shared limit revenues, resulting in opportunity losses.
The government needs to be persuasive while acting decisively, to influence operators and public opinion through well-formulated systematic initiatives.
Tighter monitoring of quality, including dropped calls, and related penalties are needed - but balanced with constructive policies.
These could cover enabling regulations such as for roaming and secondary spectrum sharing with the government, or in developing a consortium approach for active network sharing initiated by the government with broad private participation, led by a private-sector partner.
Other potential areas include enabling, organising, and facilitating broadband through cable networks, and inducting technologies such as TV White Space and satellites.
This is where the rhetoric of leading Team India has to be walked and not just talked, to persuade and lead the sector to collaborate and not undercut institutional development.