New Delhi: Even as India’s department of telecommunications, or DoT, struggles to meet radio spectrum needs of mobile phone service providers, both existing and aspirant firms, it now faces an airwaves crunch of another kind: for microwave frequencies that connect telecom towers to the network’s telephone switching exchanges.

India has some 125,000 phone towers, a number that is fast expanding, putting pressure on frequency available. By end-January, India’s second biggest telco by customers, Reliance Communications Ltd, or RCom, and Vodafone Essar Ltd had submitted their applications for microwave frequency in more than a dozen Indian states.

Rapid development: A telecom tower in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. There are around 125,000 phone towers in the country, a number that is expanding fast and putting pressure on frequency available. (Photo: Rajeev Dabral/ Mint)

“With these operators expanding national footprints, there is an obvious need for more microwave spectrum. We have many users for this spectrum including educational institutes, other government departments such as space and science," said a senior DoT official who is looking into the allocation of microwave spectrum, and wished to remain anonymous. “There is not enough microwave to accommodate all." He, however, could not elaborate as to how much of microwave frequency has already been allocated to phone firms, and how much is still left to be allotted.

Microwave spectrum is allocated in chunks of 7, 14 and 28MHz; each chunk is known as a carrier. “An operator having two carriers in a circle can be rest assured for at least four-five years," said a senior executive at a mobile phone firm who has applied for microwave spectrum, and did not wish to be identified. A circle refers to an area where a company has a licence to offer telecom services.

Microwave frequency bands—also available in 6, 7, 15, 18 and 23GHz bands—provide a less expensive option to operators for whom the alternative is to lay thousands of kilometres of optic fibre cables to connect telecom towers within cities, apart from carrying inter-city traffic.

With several phone companies such as RCom and Tata Teleservices Ltd, apart from new companies such as S Tel Ltd and Datacom Solutions Pvt. Ltd (a subsidiary of Videocon Industries Ltd) looking to roll out their telecom tower networks in the country, telecom firms will have to invest in laying cables, unless more spectrum is freed up.

“In this case, the government cannot ask a user such as Isro to vacate the spectrum because the satellite links are established and they cannot be undone," said Alok Shende, head of information technology and telecom research at Datamonitor India, a research firm. “The operators will need this spectrum especially in the remote, rural areas where laying a cable is challenging."

Isro is short for Indian Space Research Organization.

Microwave links “enable us to connect with the exchanges without having to wait long for taking necessary approvals for digging and laying the cable network," said a senior Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) executive, who did wish to be identified. BSNL has around 31,000 GSM towers, and almost 7,500 towers supporting CDMA (short for code division multiple access) technology, and also wants to set up another 6,000 towers across the country. “We will add another 30,000 towers within one year," the executive added.

Telecom service providers pay a share of their revenues to the government for microwave spectrum use. According to a November 2006 order of DoT, a carrier spectrum of 28MHz attracts 0.15% of AGR (adjusted gross revenues), and could go as high as 1.45% for six chunks of 28MHz in all.

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