If anything could come close to planet Jupiter in terms of being storm ridden, it would be India’s telecom sector. One of the lesser storms brewing these days is rooted in the new electromagnetic radiation norms effected by Department of Telecom (DoT) from September 1.

What is more, DoT didn’t lose much time in taking on-ground measures to enforce the new norms, something that didn’t seem to have made mobile operators particularly happy.

Exactly 12 days after the new radiation norms became effective for mobile towers in India, DoT officials decided to run a random check for a mobile tower in a Mumbai locality. The findings revealed that the radiation levels in the nearby houses were way above the new prescribed limits, following which DoT said it served spot notices to the seven mobile operators who had their antennas hosted on the tower.

In a release issued the very next day, DoT said the checks had been carried out by a high-level delegation of its officials, led by Advisor – Technology, DoT. Also, spot orders were issued to all seven operators to stop radiating from the tower with immediate effect till the time the radiation levels were brought in compliance with the new norms.

At short notice, DoT said its officials also organized a meeting with all the 11 mobile service operators in the Mumbai circle, well represented and attended by officials from the telecom companies. DoT says it was conveyed to the telcos that they should comprehensively carry out checks to determine which base transceiver stations (BTS) were non-compliant and to either make them compliant or shut them down.

Arguments and counterarguments
Telcos responded through the industry body, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), reportedly saying due time should be given to ascertain the non-compliant towers. Various other arguments, direct or indirect, were also fielded against a seemingly determined enforcement of the new radiation norms by DoT.

One ‘logically valid’ argument was that reduced radiation levels along with shutting down of BTSs would lead to weakened signals and degraded quality of services, something that would not be in the good interest of subscribers.

A counterargument has been that telcos could have gone for smaller form factor cells in place of tower mounted macro cells. Options in the form of femto cells and pico cells have existed for several years now and there has been the required awareness too in the industry on the benefits of these micro cells. I myself remember first writing on the merits of femto and pico cells at lease more than two years ago.

Typically, femto cells come in form factors akin to the Wi-Fi access points so commonly used in offices and campuses. These don’t require huge tower structures and can instead be mounted on rooftops. More importantly, these are low-powered devices and don’t require diesel gensets to run when the utility supply is not there. An in-building low-power source like a battery attached to a UPS or an inverter can suffice.

Imagine the savings telcos could realize by implementing a network architecture that maximizes use of such small form-factor cells. Doesn’t it make good business sense for telcos?

It makes sustainability sense too
Any technology that potentially compromises public health cannot be termed as sustainable. It is good therefore that just a month after Delhi High Court heard a petition seeking that the cellphone towers be installed at least 50 meters away from residences, and more so from schools and hospitals, DoT had implemented a new set of norms for mobile tower radiations.

With that, the exposure limits for mobile phone towers were lowered to one-tenth of the then existing levels.

The fact that DoT has categorized tower distances based on the number of antennas they host, makes the new norms meaningful. For example, while a tower with two antennas as tenants needs to be 35 meters away from residential blocks, a tower with 12-odd antennas would need to maintain a distance of 75 meters. This takes care of the fact that the fact that with the rise in the number of antennas, it is the cumulative effect that practically comes into play and needs to be addressed.

More needs to be done though. There is a need to systematically progress towards a scenario where the base stations only minimally exist in their present forms and are instead taken over by smarter, greener and nominally radiating antennas with smaller form factors.

An obvious solution is to increase the use of femto cells, pico cells and even Wi-Fi networks.

A need for integrated approach
After the mobile services boom, there has been an overemphasis by telcos on cellular growth, while other network technologies have been largely neglected. In particular, there has been little attempt by telcos to leverage the vast cable TV network assets across the country. Policy makers too have equally failed to take holistic approaches towards development of various access technologies.

The same is true when it comes to various other network technologies including Wi-Fi, fiber or DSL, even though DSL is the dominant wireline broadband technology in India. In fact, with good network planning, Wi-Fi mesh networks could deliver significant benefits to both consumers and service providers. That all notebooks and tablets and an increasingly large number of mobile phones have native support for Wi-Fi access makes its usage practicable.

Various wireline networks can effectively complement cellular networks in the backhaul, and a planned integration of wireline and wireless networks is indeed the way to go.

In this context, it is also time to blow the dust off the National Broadband Plan recommendations submitted by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) way back in December 2010. Rollout of the plan, along with a constructive government-industry dialogue, can open up novel ways of wireline-wireless integration, to contribute towards sustainability.

No other industry perhaps has as large a community as the telecom industry today, in the form of hundreds of millions of registered subscribers. Unfortunately, it has also been discredited as being among the least sustainability friendly industries, mostly due to use of technologies that hurts its profitability too. What could be a stronger case for change?

(A more detailed version of this was first published in SustaiNuance. See http://www.saagainteractive.com/sustainuance/oct2012/FLASH/index.html)
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