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Terrible telecom networks

Govindraj Ethiraj  |  Mumbai 

I remember visiting GE Capital’s Gurgaon offices in the mid 1990s and seeing the first signs of what would become India’s biggest success story. It was a late winter afternoon as we walked around and customer service executives were beginning to trickle in to their desks.

Most of them were involved in performing remote transactions (the term BPO was yet to be invented if I recall correctly) for insurance and transportation firms in the US. All thanks to hook-ups and the easing in regulations which made such hook-ups legitimate.

The quality of cross-border networks has improved substantially since then — incidentally, I also remember going up to the roof of the GE Capital and seeing all the back ups, from satellite dishes to microwave antennas to other locations, in case the link failed.

And today I ask, whether, after the substantial leaps since the early GE days, the quality of networks have improved or just about stagnated ? Okay, I don’t mean in the last decade, but at least for the last five or six years, save for a few developments here and there.

I write this just as the new have been launched. Colleagues of mine who have seen it say you can watch television on the go and initiate live video-conferencing with others with the same handset and service. And yet, as one told me, “I would only say it really works when I take it the middle of Connaught Place and it delivers the goods.” Come to think of it, I saw Reliance Communications showing off live video streaming on its exactly six years ago to this week !

Here is my point. Except for a few, useful software upgrades, our networks are broadly where they were five years ago, if not more. Our data transmission speeds over wireless are terrible.

Come to think of it, our land line data networks are only marginally better, unless I am paying big money for a high capacity fibre link provided by the likes of Bharti and Tata. That’s not something I can afford at home.

The reasons may be many. Demand has outstripped capacity, not enough spectrum (in the case of mobile) and maybe not enough on-ground investment to keep data speeds high and voice quality good. The acted in right speed and earnest the other day by saying that mobile telecom companies should shift to ‘per-second’ billing for calls given the number of call drops. I think its time for similar warnings for home data services as well.

That addresses but does not solve the fundamental problem of poor quality of telecom networks. GE could invest in back-ups in 1990s to keep the links going. Not all of us can. Imagine carrying a mobile phone, satphone and a microwave link enabled phone, all to ensure I can make one seamless call while driving from Worli in central Mumbai to Nariman Point.

First Published: Thu, December 18 2008. 00:00 IST