Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Jan 23, 2002
Industry & Economy - Telecommunications
Competition may leave cell users in a muddle
MUMBAI, Jan. 22
THE promise of cheaper long-distance cellular service by Bharti Telesonic from January 26 has run into a hurdle.
It had hoped its agreement with the cellular companies would automatically bring it the traffic, but the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is insisting that customers must consciously choose between BSNL and Bharti. If they do not, the calls will not go through.
The problem, according to the cellular service providers is this: TRAI has allotted separate carrier access codes for BSNL and Bharti Telesonic; the codes are 0-10-20 and 0-10-50 respectively. For the cellular-to-cellular caller, this means dialling five separate numbers before the destination 10-digit mobile number.
Cellular operators say the cellular user is most unlikely to do this. The most likely scenario is that the customer will continue to dial the old code `0' followed by the destination cellular phone number. "If this happens, then their calls will not connect at all because the calls cannot be terminated as per regulations," said a senior official of a private cellular company.
"It is likely that on January 26, ninety per cent of the cellular-to-cellular calls will be made in this old manner, leading to no connections happening, disappointing hundreds of cellular users."
In the landmark tie-up last month with cellular operators, Bharti Telesonic slashed cellular-to-cellular long-distance rates by 50 per cent of the then existing BSNL rates. BSNL followed suit, slashing its rates by 60 per cent in a matter of weeks. Now, with BSNL offering its services at lowered rates, cellular operators fear that their long-distance calls to be offered at rates identical to BSNL's will come to nought.
According to cellular operators, it is a regulatory issue. What is coming in the way, they say, is that they are not allowed to route calls automatically through a default carrier as selected by the service provider (in this case, the cellular operator) in the case of the customer not specifying his carrier. "We do not understand why this cannot be allowed," says Mr Manoj Pant, Vice-President, Corporate Affairs and Quality, Hutchinson Max Telecom Ltd. "If the customer dials the old code, then I must be able to route it through a carrier of my choice and convenience whether it is BSNL or Bharti Telesonic. As long as I am meeting my obligation with my customer, how does it matter?" he asked.
Currently, this problem does not arise for the basic (fixed line) providers because they have got agreements in place only with one carrier, BSNL. Later, when basic service providers tie up with multiple long-distance operators, they, too, would be faced with this problem.
The issue of default carrier is said to be an interim one and will exist till such time as pre-selection is allowed. This is when customers would specify their choice of long-distance operator with their cellular service or fixed service provider and be billed accordingly. But this calls for technological changes all around and these changes are at least some years away.
Currently, customers can select their long-distance carrier only by fully dialling the five-digit-code (instead of dialling the old number) which cellular operators feel is too cumbersome for their users. It is now too late for operators to go on a blitzkrieg telling customers what to do, they say.
A TRAI member said the options being considered were routing such calls to an announcement telling the dialler the codes to redial (which means wastage of airtime and irritation to the customer) or specifying a route policy so that default use is equally distributed among the long-distance operators. "The task of setting up announcements is too troublesome now," said one official with a cellular company. "We hope some solution can be found by January 26. We are trying to prevail upon the authorities to do something."
Another TRAI member felt it was all a fuss about nothing. "All the user has to do is to dial a number, which he will soon enough get used to, especially if he is going to save money."
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