A government that has a propensity to make things mandatory, did just that last year: the DoT had said in April 2016 that all handsets should mandatorily have GPS by January 2018, apart from having a physical panic button on each device. Now the Indian Cellular Association, which represents several major handset manufacturers in India, has asked the TRAI to recommend to the DoT that GPS should not be mandatory, saying that “the actual cost of implementation of this capability on low-cost Feature-Phones is huge and could actually have catastrophic consequences for the nascent Mobile Handset Manufacturing Industry that is just beginning to take shape in India.” Note that the TRAI had previously pushed for making GPS mandatory in handsets, even though the DoT itself had initially rejected this, saying that making GPS mandatory would increase device costs.

The ICA President Pankaj Mohindroo has asked for an “urgent intervention for issuing changes to the earlier recommendations made by TRAI so that due amendments could also be made by the DOT to the Order issued on the 22nd of April, 2016.”

A few things to note:

1. Impact on Feature Phone handset costs: As per a letter sent by the ICA to the Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad last year, the impact is greatest on low cost handsets: a feature phone priced at Rs 500-700 will cost around Rs 950 to Rs 1150. “Even for A-GPS the minimum requirement will be GPRS enabled feature phone with the requirement of fresh embedding of the software which will enable the mobile operator to identify the position of the subscriber.”

2. The inclusion of mandatory GPS wasn’t discussed in industry consultations at the DoT: What’s interesting about this letter from the ICA to the TRAI is that they say that the GPS policy “came entirely as a surprise for the Industry”, because “no such provision was agreed to by the Industry and ICA during any of the Industry Stakeholder Consultations held by the DOT prior to the publishing of the Notification by DOT.”

3. Handset Manufacturers vs Telecom Operators: In that letter to RS Prasad, the ICA had recommended that “the best technical solution for location identification would be one which is completely resting with the mobile operator who is able to identify the position of the person through ‘triangulation method’…”

This is an old issue. The telecom operators do not want to take on the additional cost of improving location accuracy, because that would require infrastructure investment. In 2011, Bharti Airtel had told India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) that it could cost the company as much as Rs 4500 crore to bring location accuracy down to 100 meters. The handset manufacturers don’t want to take on the cost either. In both cases, the cost will get transferred to citizens.

4. Panic Button or surveillance: Right now, this demand is pegged on the idea of panic buttons for women in danger, though historically the idea behind improving location accuracy has been for better surveillance. GPS provides for better accuracy of tracking than cell-tower triangulation, although it is costlier.

From our 2011 posts: “Among the features being requested, is the ability to plot the information on a map to enable geographical analysis of the calls.” Read: What The Home Ministry’s Communications Monitoring Tender Tells Us

Lastly, a response to “But GPS in every handset would be great because it would enable more data for better services”: Just because feature phones have GPS, and there are millions who can afford it, doesn’t mean that everyone can. The increase in marginal cost will get transferred to consumers (albeit, not in its entirety, but it still will). The point is that citizens should have the freedom to decide whether they want GPS on their phones or not.