For a tribe that lives by voice, and other kinds of communication, it is amusing to see telecom service providers suddenly go silent. Which is what they do when you utter two words: location details.
“Nobody... I can tell you... Nobody will speak on record on this,” says an executive of one of the largest companies. The head of corporate communications of another was more forthcoming, relatively speaking. He sent a few emails over the course of a few days, only to say he was not certain about what was happening.
It is time they found that out. By the time you get this magazine in your hands, there will be only a few days left to meet the June 1 deadline set by the department of telecommunications (DOT) for mobile telephony companies (telcos) to provide location details of their subscribers down to 50 metres in urban areas.
In the first year, the accuracy of the location details has to be at least 30 per cent, and this has to rise to 50 per cent the next year. In the second year, the suburban and rural areas also come in, where location details have to be provided down to a range of 100 metres with an accuracy of at least 50 per cent.
In remote areas such as the North-East, which would presumably have fewer towers and base stations and where signals are more likely to get disrupted, the range is 300 metres.
The measure is driven by concerns of national security and DOT is pursuing it in earnest. Its seeds lie in the helicopter crash that killed former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in September 2009. It took nearly 24 hours to locate the helicopter in the dense Nallamalla forest. Since then, every terror attack, including the one in February on an Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi, has fuelled the idea.
The idea itself is a no-brainer, and no one would oppose doing something demanded in the interests of national security. It is execution that is the problem.
India was the first country to demand such a short range; the United States became the second a few months back. So telcos are still feeling their way around it.
Already locked in battle with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s recommendations to increase spectrum charges several times over, they are also feeling their pockets. The cost of installing the software and hardware needed to track a mobile user to within 50 metres may be`500 crore or more for each service provider.
It is not that location details are not available now. They are, but up to a range of 500 metres. With an incremental cost, this can be improved to 300 metres. But 50 metres is a different call.
The good news is that it can be done. Last month, Manlio Allegra, CEO of the Mountain View, California-based Polaris Wireless (not to be confused with the Chennai-based Polaris headed by Arun Jain) gave a demonstration to this correspondent in which he successfully tracked a phone user.
Polaris had given a similar demonstration to the Centre for Development of Telematics, the government’s telecom technology development centre, in August 2009. Using a radio frequency survey in New Delhi’s business district of Connaught Place, its system tracked a person to the Metro station on Barakhamba Road; it only failed to pinpoint which of the four exits he was at.
The mobile service operators are less convinced. At a three-hour meeting in the Cellular Operators Association of India(COAI)’s office in New Delhi on Friday, the day this magazine was put to bed, the chief technology officers of several service providers asked the representatives of Polaris and CommScope, another company that says it has the technology, whether it could be done.
“Apart from the technical questions, there was a sharp focus on the funding. The telcos seem to believe that they are being squeezed in the name of national security and that the government should subsidise them,” says a person who attended the meeting.
Rajan Mathews, COAI’S Director-General, agrees that the funding is a ticklish issue. “DoT says we have to bear the cost. But we are pushing DoT to see if there are some reasonable costs that both sides can agree to bear.”
Manish Gupta, Director, Cogence Advisors, a boutique investment bank that advises Polaris, has a different take on the cost aspect. He says that for a large service provider, say, one with 200 million subscribers, the cost can be broken down to about `25 per subscriber.“Can you not think of ways to recover this amount from each of your subscribers? Many of them will be happy to pay this amount every month just for receiving traffic updates.”McDonald’s, for instance, can advertise coupons that expire in 10 minutes within a 50-metre radius far more effectively than in a 300-metre range.
Mathews disagrees. “The location-based service that meets DoT’s requirements does not have any commercial application,” he says.
In this scenario, can compliance with the location details requirement happen on the appointed date?“Certainly not,” says Mathews. “We are equally concerned about national security, but there are 900 million connections. DOT has to be reasonable.”