New Trai regulations keep misuse by telcos to minimum

New Trai regulations keep misuse by telcos to minimum

The telecom industry in India is one of the world’s largest, with almost one billion customers, accounting for almost 80 per cent of the country’s population. While intense competition amongst Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) has seen call rates and other services available on mobile phones plummeting to extremely low levels, strict regulations by the Telecom Regulation Authority of India (TRAI) have seen that malpractices or misrepresentations have been kept to a tolerable minimum.

With the advent of smartphones, the telecom market is evolving from voice to data at a very rapid pace. There have been some discrepancies and misinformation in this space which have led to a chorus of complaints by consumers on either being inadequately informed or being billed for data services they never used. The telecom industry is quick to shoot back saying it has computer records to show data usage and that the consumer is always wrong.

The Trai has managed to rein in all shady practices resorted to by the telecom industry through a series of regulations over the years. These regulations are scrupulously enforced and TSPs are fined heavily if they transgress the “lakshman rekha” of these regulations. Call drops, the do not disturb service and calibration of prepaid vouchers have been kept well under control because of these stringent regulations.

Aware of the increasing importance of data usage, the scope for misuse in billing consumers for these services and the shrill cacophony of complaints pertaining to data usage services, the Trai issued a fresh set of regulations on August 7, 2015 to control and regulate the data market of the TSPs.

One of the key regulations in the current announcement is that data services cannot be activated on any phone without the explicit consent of the consumer. The current method of ‘default activation’ without the knowledge of the consumer has led to a lot of acrimony as innocent consumers, who have no idea of data services and their charges, unknowingly touch some part of the touchscreen of their cellphone automatically triggering data usage. In some situations where there is a continuous feed of data, like in the GPS system, the data may be streaming for hours together and the consumer is asked to pay an astronomic bill for a service which he technically never availed of. If the bill is challenged, the consumer would be shown a computer recording of times where the service was used, leading to further allegations of ‘rigging’ and ‘cheating’ by the harassed consumer as the entire concept is alien to him.

Yet another regulation mandates that the TSPs should inform the consumer of the exact usage of data after every 10 MBs, except to those using special data packs. Those using data packs (e.g. 1 GB or 3 GB) are to be mandatorily informed of their usage when it crosses the 50 per cent, 90 per cent and 100 per cent usage mark.

On crossing the 90 per cent mark or if the balance of unused data is 10 MB, the TSPs are supposed to intimate the consumer the rates for further usage in the ‘default mode’.

Bill shocks

A reference to data usage rates either in the ‘default mode’ or post-package mode would not be out of place here. TSPs widely advertise and induce consumers to avail of data usage in either mode at a “very affordable rate of 4 paise per 10 KB”. A back of the envelope calculation of this rate shows that usage charges work out to Rs 4 for 1 MB and Rs 4000 for 1 GB, whereas standard package rates are at an average of Rs 150-200 per GB. This huge difference in rate accounts for most of the ‘bill shocks’ (a euphemism used by TSPs for the extortionist bills arising in such situations) and prolonged battles between the beleaguered consumer and a recalcitrant TSP.

These problems get aggravated if the consumer has the misfortune to go abroad with an active data package. International rates for data are calculated at the rate of 10 cents (Rs 6.50) per minute and the consequent bill shock is of a very high voltage. The TSP feigns ignorance by saying that he is paying this amount to a ‘foreign service provider’. Taking this into consideration, the regulations require the TSP to caution the consumer to deactivate his data services before proceeding to international destinations, to avoid such catastrophes.

The present set of regulations is welcome because it gives the consumer the right to select his data package according to his own need. It will also prevent unwitting usage of services with consequent high charges. The Trai has allocated a special number 1925 for the activation and deactivation of data services by consumers, to enable easy and quick access to such  services.

Though the above rules are to come in force from September 1, there are many questions which the TSPs and their federations have to answer. For example, how does the industry justify rates which are 20 to 30 times the ones that are available to a regular consumer, if he crosses the package limits? Why does the industry wait for diktats on simple issues like these, which have been festering for months together? Self-regulation, it appears, is only a word in the dictionary.

(The author is Hon. Secretary of the Consumer Guidance Society of India, Mumbai)

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