Print Edition - 2015-05-30  |  On Saturday

Looming large

Looming large

May 29, 2015-

In the aftermath of the Great Quake, the mobile phone service operators in the country earned much praise for the way they were able to, for the most part, keep the phone lines working. Efficient communication, albeit with a lot of difficulties, remained intact to a large extent, providing a huge relief to the people within the country and abroad who desperately wanted to connect with their friends and families.

But now the operators have a bigger challenge to overcome. While the telecom services provided the link for millions of people, integral parts of their relay network have now emerged as a bone of contention for thousands of people, especially in the Kathmandu Valley, whose houses have BTS (Base Transceiver Station) towers on their rooftops. These towers help facilitate wireless communication between user equipment and the wider network through wireless technology like GSM, CDMA and wireless local loops. Until the quake, BTS towers installed within the city limits helped improve the network quality for telecom operators, and the towers were also a lucrative source of income for homeowners. But things have radically changed in the aftermath of the quake.

Hundreds of homeowners now see the same towers as a bane. They have already filed complaints at the Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA), the regulatory body overseeing the telecom sector, urging the government body to help them pull down these towers, which they think have made their homes more susceptible to earthquake damage (because of the added weight they place on their rooftops). In several places, people living in the periphery of houses with BTSs tower have also been pressuring the home owners to dismantle these towers, fearing mishaps in days to come, as big and small aftershocks continue rocking the nation.  

But given the unavailability of open spaces in the city, operators are left with few options. More than 90 percent of BTS towers in the Valley are perched on rooftops not because the operators want them there, but because the optimal relay locations lie within the city premises.

“Nepal Telecom (NT) alone has around 500 BTS towers in the Valley. Another large operator, Ncell, too has almost an equivalent number of towers,” says Digambar Jha, chairman of the NTA. “Kathmandu is an unplanned city, and due to the unavailability of open spaces, there is no option to installing towers on rooftops.”

Along with space crunch comes the problem of network management. The placement of these towers is predetermined in such a way as to offer smooth signal coverage, and it is based upon scientific calculations, which takes parameters like the elevation of a place, its location and distance from another tower into consideration.  In such a situation, if the government decides to bend to popular will and pull the towers down, it might seriously hamper the communication network in the Valley.

On the other hand, letting the towers remain where they are could also be disastrous. According to an assessment carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2010, nine out of 13 rooftop BTS towers in the Valley were found to be unsafe in the event of an earthquake.

An effective solution to this problem, according to Jha, could be infrastructure sharing, whereby multiple service providers can operate through a common tower. To put things into perspective, say, if there are 1,000 BTS towers operating for the three service providers in the Valley (Ncell, Nepal Telecom and United Telecom Limited), implementing the concept of infrastructure sharing could bring the number of towers to around 335. “Not all homes with towers are unsafe. We can carry out an assessment of the buildings and choose common towers to decrease the number of towers,” Jha says, adding that these towers can be retrofitted keeping the future user base and numbers in mind.

According to the NTA, the regulatory body is mulling over preparations for infrastructure sharing guidelines and is planning to make its implementation mandatory. While current telecommunication guidelines have defined service providers as telecom service providers, the NTA is planning to amend the provision, whereby a service provider could also be viewed as independent infrastructure service providers.     

Infrastructure sharing, according to experts, could not just minimise the risk posed by these rooftop towers, but also help telecommunication service providers decrease their service charges. “Think about the cost involved in erecting and operating a single tower. And now think about at least three or four operators operating from one tower,” Jha says, adding that if congested cities like Mumbai and Delhi have benefitted from this system, then so can we.   

Erik Hallberg, president of TeliaSonera Eurasia, says that the concept of infrastructure sharing could be implemented in Nepal if certain legal measures were put in place. TeliaSonera is the parent company of Ncell, a leading telecom service operator in Nepal. Hallberg is of the opinion that there needs to be an understanding as to how operators are going to manage infrastructure sharing, as towers belonging to a particular company might not be compatible with the equipment of other companies. “But again, as an operator, we are not afraid of working on the scheme. But we are also very keen that we do it right,” Hallberg says, adding that it will take a lot of time and homework to implement such plans.

Buddhi Prasad Acharya, managing director of Nepal Telecom, says that the concept of infrastructure sharing can only be adopted for some tower models. “The design of our BTS towers has been prepared in such a way that it cannot take the load of other operators,” Acharya says. “Infrastructure sharing is definitely something to look forward to. However, I am doubtful it can be implemented with the existing equipment.”   

Operators do, however, feel that infrastructure sharing could benefit both operators and end users. “If you are sharing the cost of a tower, electricity charge, equipment charge, battery backup charge and rental charge, it will help reduce operation and maintenance cost to a great extent,” Acharya says. “And this could lead to reduced service charges.”

Published: 30-05-2015 15:49

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