The Case for Small Cells and Signal Boosters in India – Why Indian Operators must consider them to Improve Coverage?

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Two weeks ago when I had been to southern Karnataka and northern parts of Kerala several of my friends and relatives were telling me about dropping signal strengths of several mobile operators. This included state-run BSNL and even leading private telcos like Airtel and Idea Cellular. Few of them had even complained to the authorities at multiple levels but this yielded nothing. At places where phones indicated full signal strength with 4-5 bars, now it had dropped to one or even 'emergency calls only' and this was the case with semi-urban and rural areas. Call drops have become order of the day even in cities these days.

Our sources in telecom industry explained that the drop in signal strength can be attributed to changing landscape and at times relocation of towers. One person even indicated that while certain areas had less than required number of towers, it was not really possible to install more towers as the increase in revenues or ARPU was not justifiable. Off the record, some complainers are even asked to consider porting out for better experience.

What's the solution then?

I set out to check if there are solutions which telcos can rely upon other than installing new BTS which demands massive investments. I soon realized that poor signal strength is not something which is limited only to India but is faced by customers in developed nations like the US and UK as well. Carriers there leverage unique solutions like small cells for rural communities and signal boosters for individual customers.

Small Cells

The small cells network which the British Mobile Carrier EE deploys, comes from a provider called Parallel Wireless and requires only few hours to setup.

The rural micro network solution from Parallel Wireless does not rely on any wired broadband, and can connect communities of around 100 homes with just three or four base stations. The first community to be connected through trials of the new micro network technology is the small village of Sebergham, in Cumbria. Sebergham has 129 dwellings and 347 residents, and sits in a deep valley. Source

Here is a video of the same -

Signal Boosters

Signal Boosters are provided by US Carrier T-Mobile for free to customers who meet certain qualifications. While these details were not available, we can rightly assume that it would be either a term contract or based on customer's bill amount.02_15:44:12

The signal booster is said to cover an area of 13000 sq.ft. The booster manufacturer Cel-Fi claims the following features -

All you need is 1 bar (more is always better) to get 5 bars from Cel-Fi.  Find one spot in your home/office where your mobile device receives at least 1 bar (-104 dBm RSCP 3G/4G and -120 dBm 4G LTE RSRP) of usable 3G, 4G or 4G LTE cellular signal. Place your Network Unit in this location, and then place the Coverage Unit where you need enhanced coverage the most, minimizing dead zones and dropped calls.

The installation is a simple three step process as shown in this video -

What Next?

While the price might seem too high for an Indian consumer to buy (comparable to a high-end handset), it might be worth an investment / freebie from a telco for loyal customers, particularly when all members of a family are on the same network.02_15:53:15

It may be remembered that WLL Phones from BSNL and Reliance CDMA used to come with external antennas for remote rural areas. Therefore we urge Indian telcos to bring signal boosters to India to serve customers better. They could possibly -

  • Subsidize the booster prices
  • Negotiate with vendor for lower prices. Volumes can lower the prices
  • Rent out the signal boosters just like BSNL does it for broadband modems
  • Indigenous hardware vendors can always try to innovate to bring the costs down.

Readers, what do you think about the above solutions? Do you think small cells and signal boosters can ring success in India?

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