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Sunday, September 9, 2012

New radiation norms: Consumers may experience poor voice quality

CHENNAI: The new radiation norms for cellphone towers may be good for your health, but there is a flip side no one's talking about. Consumers may experience inferior voice quality, increase in call drops and congestion in coming months as companies rejig networks to decrease the power supplied to their transmission towers.

The new norms for towers, which came into effect on September 1, have reduced the radiation limit from 9.2 W/sqm to 0.92 W/ sqm, a 10-fold decrease. It is lower than the US (12 W/sqm) and higher than China (0.4 W/ sqm) and Russia (0.2 W/sqm).

There are around 4.5 lakh telecom towers in India, of which 5% (around 22,000) don't meet the new norms. Most of these are in the core areas of Delhi and Mumbai and suburbs Bangalore and Chennai, apart from other tier-1 cities, said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India.

To achieve the new norms without changing the entire infrastructure, companies will manually decrease the power supplied to the towers, which will bring down radiation levels. While this solves the compliance problem , it means that the coverage area of each tower goes down and more towers will be needed to cover the same area.

Data services will also be affected
This, in turn, will increase the number of 'handovers' required to complete a call. When we move from the vicinity of one tower to another while on a call, the phone searches for the closest tower and call duties are 'handed over' to the new tower by the network.

"More towers mean your phone will search and switch between towers much more frequently than before, leading to more call drops. Up to 5% of calls can get dropped due to increased handovers," said the chief technology officer of a leading telecom tower equipment maker, who did not wish to be quoted. "Subscribers will not be getting the same quality."

As companies try to move towers around or add new ones, gaps are also likely to emerge in the network, leading to insufficient coverage for both calls and data services. Most towers have both voice and data units.

"As a result of these measures, degraded services, higher congestion, lack of coverage and higher number of call drops will result for customers," said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). Vodafone and Airtel didn't comment directly on the story and forwarded the queries from TOI to COAI.

Twin issues
There are two sides to the problem. If new towers are not installed, gaps will occur in the networks. If towers are installed to account for gaps, it will lead to a higher density of towers, which increases interference, congestion and partially defeats the purpose of the new norms -- to reduce radiation.

Interference in telecom networks will be aggravated in areas with high density of buildings as well as towers. This is because signals bounce off tall buildings. A higher number of towers in a congested area can lead to a high number of reflected signals which interfere with each other, thereby leading to disturbance in calls or outright call drops.

The new radiation norms are also going to stretch the existing network capacity, already under lot of pressure, to its limits. "Because of limited spectrum allocated in India, most operators reuse the same frequencies on two different towers to enable the network to handle more calls on the same infrastructure. This reuse requires that the towers be far enough so as to not cause interference. More towers will put pressure on reuse of frequencies and will lead to more interference causing call drops and bad voice quality," said Mathews. 

"Operators don't have an option . They can't let go reuse of frequencies since their networks are already stretched thin."

3G to be more affected
A 3G tower emits more radiation than a 2G one and so it needs to be powered down much more to meet the new norms. Therefore, 3G towers' coverage area will decrease more than 2G ones and the gaps in the network will be larger.

A single tower can have 2G, 3G and 4G units. While the tower may be compliant for 2G, it might not meet the standards for 3G and 4G. "If powering down is not able to solve the situation, companies might have to take down the 3G and 4G modules from those towers," said Mathews.
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