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Telecom complaints: Time for ombudsman?

G. Rambabu

Both the TRAI and the Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal do not entertain complaints from individual consumers. The TRAI Act clearly states that the TDSAT should adjudicate any dispute between a licensor and a licensee; between two or more service providers; or between a service provider and a group of consumers.

NEW DELHI, May 21

WITH as many as six fixed line providers, an equal number of limited mobility operators and 14 cellular service providers operating across the country, the telecom subscriber base is widely expected to increase by leaps and bounds over the next couple of years. At the same time, consumer complaints too are bound to increase.

While the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been vested with powers to protect the interests of consumers, it is a different matter in the case of individual complaints against operators.

Both the TRAI and the Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) do not entertain complaints from individual consumers. The TRAI Act clearly states that the TDSAT should adjudicate any dispute between a licensor and a licensee; between two or more service providers; or between a service provider and a group of consumers. In other words, in case of a complaint against the operator, one has to approach a "recognised" consumer group, which will then have to file a petition before the TRAI or TDSAT for any action to be taken.

According to TRAI officials, since the Act does not provide for redressal of individual complaints, they do not extend the facility to the consumers. The complaint of an individual consumer is only maintainable before a Consumer Redressal Forum or a Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission or the National Consumer Redressal Commission established under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.

This is in sharp contrast to the experience of consumers in the developed telecom markets such as the US, UK, Australia and Hong Kong, where the regulator has put in place a mechanism for handling individual consumer complaints directly. All that a consumer has to do is log on to the Web site of specific regulators - - Federal Communications Commission (USA), OFTEL (UK), Australian Communications Authority and OFTA (Hong Kong) - - and lodge their complaints by email, phone, fax or mail.

The service is provided free of charge and a speedy redressal is assured in all cases where the complaints are found to have a basis, after preliminary investigation. In Australia and UK, there is separate ombudsman appointed for providing "free, independent, just, informal and speedy resolution of complaints".

According to industry experts, it is time the Government thought of setting up a telecom ombudsman. It will help the individual consumers a great deal, they say.

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