When the mobile phone came to India in the mid-1990s, call quality was good. Mobile service quality was better than landlines, and dropped calls were rare.
There were few subscribers, and the service was expensive – up to 16 rupees (about $0.25 today) every minute.
Fast forward to today, when calls are 20 times cheaper, and mobile telephony powers the economy, with 915 million mobile subscriptions. Every second Indian carries a handset.
Here’s what those mobile phone users deal with every day:
Can’t connect: Connecting when "roaming" can be a struggle. If your flight has just landed, several hundred devices power on and try to connect to an overloaded network. On a train, users find it difficult to hold a conversation even when passing through areas with moderate cellular coverage. It’s the same on inter-state highways.
Network busy: You have a full signal, but can’t call – common in busy areas such as Delhi’s airport, Gurgaon’s Cyber City (an office area near Delhi), and elsewhere in India’s large metros. Many users keep retrying on auto-redial, which adds to the problem.
Call drops: When you, or the person you’re calling, are on the move, it’s common for the call to drop. Often, both of you will try re-dialing, and fail to connect. If one of you moved into an overloaded network area, you may not be able to reconnect easily.
No internet: Mobile data is patchy in India. 3G isn’t everywhere, but even where you get a strong 3G signal, you might find no data activity. This is a problem for a country with 240 million mobile internet subscribers – that’s 92% of its total internet subscriber base.
Poor signal: A weak mobile signal is common in urban India’s high-rise office and residential areas. The upscale condominium complex in Gurgaon where this writer lives has virtually no mobile service.
India has roughly 900 million mobile phone subscribers
So why is the mobile network powering modern India so broken?
"The top three reasons are spectrum, spectrum and spectrum," says Shyam Mardikar, chief of network planning and strategy for India’s top mobile operator, Airtel.
Spectrum, the radio waves that carry phone signals along with television, radio and all wireless communications, is a scarce resource that’s controlled globally by governments.
India allows relatively little spectrum for mobile communications, and splits that up among a dozen operators. A lot of radio spectrum is blocked for defence use.
How bad is the spectrum crunch?
Sample this: Delhi’s top operator has roughly the same number of 3G users as its counterparts in Singapore and Shanghai (about 3 million), but it has about a tenth of their spectrum.
And that’s the problem, Mr Mardikar says.
A spectrum auction is on the cards in 2015, but the government will largely re-auction "expiring" spectrum now held by top operators Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and Reliance.
In an open letter to India’s telecoms minister in late November, the global GSM Association chief Anne Bouverot said the spectrum crisis threatened Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s Digital India vision.