The Telegraph, July 10, 2016

E-commerce can play a pivotal role in fostering growth and raising living standards, particularly for developing countries, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has said.

New Delhi, July 10: Mobile data service providers may be giving India’s telecom regulators a misleadingly rosy picture of their quality of services that are in reality dogged by connectivity breaks, slow speeds and stalled downloads, an IIT-led analysis has suggested.

The analysis measured the values of three key performance parameters – availability, bandwidth, and latency or time delays – from consumers’ hand-held devices in a set of urban and rural locations over three months.

The results did not match the values that service providers claimed to be delivering, both in their advertisements to consumers and in their reports to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai).

“Regulators need to enforce more rigorous quality-of-service measurements so that service providers’ values reflect the actual experience of end users,” Aaditeshwar Seth, the IIT Delhi computer scientist who led the technical analysis, told The Telegraph.

Seth, collaborating with the Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) International, a consumer rights organisation, set up netbooks (a type of small laptop) and modems at 20 urban and rural locations in Delhi, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh to measure quality-of-service metrics.

The consumer group also questioned 300 end users each in Bengal and Rajasthan and 130 in Delhi to document their experiences with mobile services and their awareness of regulatory and technical issues.

The CUTS-IIT exercise comes at a time mobile data traffic in India has been growing by 50 per cent annually. The Internet and Mobile Association of India, a non-profit industry body, estimates that 60 per cent of India’s 30-odd crore Web users routinely access Internet services via mobile handsets.

The study found that availability – the fraction of time when connectivity is available – was not 100 per cent or near-100 per cent as some companies claim but swung between 41 per cent and 91 per cent at various locations.

At one location in Madhya Pradesh, availability was only 36 per cent, which means the modem successfully connected to a base station for only 36 per cent of the time during which it tried to do so. While availability there did rise to 80 per cent at certain times, the value submitted to Trai was 99 per cent.

An email sent by this newspaper to the Cellular Operators Association of India, seeking comments on the CUTS-IIT assessment, has remained unanswered.

During the study, large file downloads stalled frequently at several locations, at times for periods of up to tens of seconds. The analysis suggests the likely cause for such stalling is poor device and network configurations that cause the modems to switch between 2G and 3G periodically, thus temporarily suspending data transfer.

“What this implies is that just redesigning the network configuration may help improve the quality of services even with existing infrastructure,” Seth said. The frequency of switches from 3G to 2G may also require further investigation, he said.

The CUTS-IIT report, which is to be submitted to Trai, has recommended a deeper analysis of service providers’ logs to check whether they deliberately downgrade 3G access to 2G because their networks are under-provisioned or are inappropriately configured.

“Trai has come up with a commendable set of quality-of-service guidelines, but we believe the regulator should impose penalties on service providers when there are significant deviations from quality-of-service parameters,” said Neha Tomar, a lawyer and senior research associate with CUTS.

“We also believe that there is a need for third-party audits of the quality-of-service values turned in by the service providers to Trai.” CUTS officials also want Trai to introduce a system in which service providers are ranked according to the actual quality of service they provide.

The CUTS-IIT analysis has also recommended that the regulator crack down on misleading advertisements promising far more bandwidth than is actually available. The bandwidth determines the speed at which data get transferred.

Krithi Ramamritham, professor of computer science and head of the Centre for Urban Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay, said the findings have helped fill major gaps in understanding the current situation of the quality of mobile data services.

“With providers claiming 100 per cent uptime while customers’ experience leaves much to be desired, we (needed) a study such as this to categorically reveal the reality… so that the right steps are taken to fix ills that prevail,” Ramamritham wrote in a foreword to the CUTS-IIT report.

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