According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the total number of telephone subscribers in the country amounted to 1.2 billion as of September 2017. This comprises of both the wireless and the wireline subscribers in the country. The number of rural subscribers is over 500 million while the urban subscribers amount to over 700 million (TRAI, 2017). The biggest players in Indian telecom industry are familiar names such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and Reliance Jio. Government-controlled telecom agencies include Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL). As of December 2017, MTNL and BSNL have a combined user base of 143 million subscribers (Statista, 2018).
The Growth of the Telecom Industry in India
The Indian telecom industry has grown over thirty times over the last two decades, defeating most of the nations in terms of telecom growth. From 37 million subscribers in the year 2001, India now has over 1200 million (1.2 billion) subscribers. The portentous expansion of the Indian telecom industry has opened up the gates to numerous opportunities, which has attracted telecom giants from all around the world to invest in the booming market. Unfortunately, only some of the benefits have reached the rural masses, which still fail to keep pace with the average telecom density of the country. Rural India, which encompasses almost 70 per cent of the country’s population, has a telecom density of only 33 per cent, which is less than half of the country’s average, which stands at 71 per cent (ImaginMor, 2017).
The Indian telecom sector’s growth can be credited to the increase in standard of living and the decrease in the cost of handheld communication devices (general purpose or smartphones among others). This can be comprehended from the fact that out of the 1.206 billion telecom subscribers, 1.18 billion subscribers are from the wireless domain. The story is similar in both rural and urban areas, where wireline subscribers amount to 0.7 per cent and 2.8 per cent respectively (TRAI, 2017). Another factor which has contributed to the growth of the telecom industry is the growth of the overall industrial infrastructure in the country, which is connected through telecommunication. The ease of doing business and the unlimited opportunities due to globalisation has benefitted the telecom industry a lot.
Under the clouds of growth, it is important to understand the challenges and environmental concerns the telecom industry brings forth. The increase in the number of users has created a scarcity of radio spectrum, which is the primary need for telecommunication as of now. Along with the spectrum, the increasing number of users poses a need to install a huge number of cell phone towers to keep the devices connected. Simultaneously, the emitted microwaves from the cell phone towers can cause health problems including headaches, memory loss, birth defects and even cancer. While the number of cell phone users increase, the need for mobile towers is increasing as well. However, it is important to understand the severe effects of the towers when placed in residential areas.
NRDMS and Telecom
To understand and mitigate these issues, space technology comes in handy. Natural Resources Data Management System (NRDMS), under the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India used space technology in Shimoga Taluk, Karnataka, to map cell phone towers and network coverage of all network providers. Using a Geographical Information System (GIS), multiple non-related parameters can be used to generate synoptic maps which can help in analysing the target area. Using the toposheet of the area from the Survey of India (SOI) and the location and position of the towers using GPS, NRDMS mapped out the network coverage of the towers in Shimoga Taluk.
Some of the maps are given below:
As we can see from the above maps, it was found out that the Taluk lacked network coverage in some parts which created a need for new towers. Using this technology, NRDMS has proposed towers for leading telecommunication companies including Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, MTS and Tata Indicom. Using the results from the mapping, these companies can construct new towers to maximize their coverage area with minimum resources.
Apart from constructing new towers for maximum coverage, this mapping can also help in understanding the dangers posed by these towers and reduce their effect in residential areas. Using the results, companies can identify the areas which are away from the residential complexes but can be used to site new towers to increase the overall coverage area. It will lead to an effective coverage while posing a minimum danger to the local population.
Telecommunication tower mapping is only one of the many possibilities that space technologies can be deployed in. GIS is more than just a tool and can emerge as a decision support system for governments when applied correctly. NRDMS, under Department of Science & Technology, Government of India is constantly working towards employing ‘Geo-Spatial applications for good Governance’. Telecom tower mapping is one of the countless projects NRDMS has initiated to act as a decision support system for good governance all around the country.