AFor connectivity-starved Indians the 3G was like a god’s gift giving them hope of better surfing and connectivity on demand. Service providers (SPs) also were upbeat about their business prospects, so much so that they almost threw caution to the winds while bidding during the auction. Then again, a few SPs (read Airtel, Idea and Vodafone) tried to create a cartel by bidding in concert by not bidding against each other and carving out the circles in such a way that collectively they had pan-India 3G license. What played out next was the real messy bit.
fter the auctions, the successful bidders, the SPs, started using their cartel as they together had about 75 per cent of the mobile market – sufficient to dictate the terms of availing 3G services to consumers including high tariffs. Not only the basic tariffs were kept high (about 10p/10 KB), they also found ways of putting add-on charges so that the effective tariff the consumer paid was even higher.
The situation was aggravated further by unexpectedly slow revenue growth for the SPs, putting strains on their financials for overpaying for the bandwidths/licenses in their false belief of manipulating the systems and cartelization being effective. The SPs (read Airtel, Idea and Vodafone) also were pulled up for illegally selling the services without a license as their agreement was termed illegal even by courts. Consumers were reluctant to pay so much for just being connected as networks
were not yet ready to serve them at their optimum speeds and continuity.
Now, after two years of 3G availability and reduction of tariffs across SPs, consumers are still not happy with the services on offer. Consumers’ complaints revolve around four main issues: a) connectivity, b) speed, c) tariff, and d) billing. Let us take up each of these issues in detail. a) Connectivity: When a consumer buys a 3G plan, she expects that she will be able to use the connection wherever and whenever she wants. But that is not the ground situation even in the most developed circles like Delhi. On complaining to customer care, she is told of various conditions and fine print regarding license conditions, network issues, etc. Like in the case of Airtel, Vodafone and Idea, they do not have a pan-India license and so they depend on their collaborator to provide connectivity wherever they do not have the license. This is never explained to the consumer.
Even within their license area there are lots of ‘dark areas’ for all the SPs because they have cut down on creating sufficient infrastructure to cut costs. No SP tells the prospective buyer about these ‘dark areas’ till complaints are lodged. Nor has TRAI given attention to these issues. And there is absolutely no refunds coming if we are unable to use the connection because of this.
b) Speed: This is one area where consumers are being ‘cheated’ by all the SPs. The consumer never gets the promised speed even after buying the highest tariff plan. Then again, even TRAI/DoT has not mandated minimum speed yet. So the SPs get away with impunity by just promising ‘speed up to…’, which legally covers any speed from 1 bps to the maximum stated, whether or not it is usable by consumer.
c) Tariff: Realizing that high tariffs are not bringing in sufficient consumers, all SPs have reduced the tariffs by up to 70 per cent in the last one year and 3G tariffs are now comparable with 2G. However, while all SPs have almost similar tariffs, the scenario continues to be totally confusing for the lay consumer, as can be seen from the chart given here.
This table, displaying a few representative 3G data plans for all the ISPs operating in Delhi-NCR, underlines three distinctive categories: • High-end SPs – only Airtel charging 3p/10
KB • Mid-level SPs – Vodafone, Reliance charging
2p/10 KB • Lower-priced SPs like MTNL at 1 to 2 p/10
KB, and the lowest-priced MTS
Airtel: Not only is it charging the highest, it also has various add-on charges. Moreover, since it does not have a national license, it charges for domestic roaming as well. Thus, Airtel’s effective tariff is well beyond the 3p/10 KB it claims.
Vodafone: Though relatively cheaper than Airtel and with less add-on charges, Vodafone also charges for national roaming as it does not have a national 3G license. Overall, there is still some difference between stated tariff and charged tariff for Vodafone, though the difference is not as big as Airtel’s.
Other SPs: No other SP operating in Delhi charges roaming for 3G data services. They also do not have any add-on charges, so the tariff stated and charged is same for them.
d) Billing: Billing continues to be the biggest pain point for 3G data consumers. With so many hidden charges, roaming charges and charges for exceeding the data limits or even not using 3G, all 3G consumers face billing disputes. Billing issues arise because of: • Confusing tariff card of the SPs • Hidden/Unstated charges • Unclear/Confusing roaming policies • Accidental usage of 3G by consumers/un
savvy Internet users • Plans without limits corresponding to credit limits, especially in case of Airtel and Vodafone • Lack of tools to measure speed, usage and
connectivity Maximum billing-related complaints are reported against Airtel, followed by Vodafone. Reliance has maximum disputes on usage of Internet. The least billing-related complaints are reported by MTNL.
Out of the Maze
3G continues to be in a flux with regard to licenses, quality of connection, tariff, roaming as well as quality of service (QOS) issues. For first-time users, it is a bigger pain till they navigate the intricacies of above-mentioned issues. To take care of these issues, we want TRAI/DoT to ensure the following: (a) A uniform and logical tariff structure should
be formulated and well publicized. (b) License/Service areas of different SPs should
be well publicized on a continuous basis. (c) Roaming charges should be removed for data
services as most SPs are not levying the same. (d) Minimum speed should also be prescribed for
each level of connection. (e) SPs should provide tools for measuring connectivity, speed and usage to all consumers and the same should be available on TRAI/ DOT sites as well. (f) Definition of 3G with speed and connectivity
should be clear. (g) There should be a clear policy on data card/
dongles including their portability.