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If call drop penalty is illegal, consumers everywhere in for trouble


The blemish in India’s much-lauded telecom revolution is a curious, widely recurring phenomenon called “call drops.” In a country that is the world’s second-largest mobile user market after China, fast-paced expansion coupled with inadequate infrastructure and overloaded networks is leading to many callers being cut off mid-sentence.

Telecom regulatory authority of India (TRAI) had awarded Re 1 for call drop subject to a maximum or Rs 3 a day. The operators cried that it would cost them Rs 200 crore per quarter (Rs 800 crore a year) – an untenable logic. It may be interpreted as the caller awarding Rs 800 crore bonus to companies for their poor service.

It is not a loss to the operators but what TRAI suggested is a cap on their illicit and unethical income. Though nobody has directly accused that the operators were doing it deliberately, many alleged that the operators were increasing their earnings by engineering the drops or call disconnect. No wonder the high court had upheld the TRAI order and found the telecom services deficient.

Even this scribe during his visit to Simhasth Kumbh early May, 2016 found that there were disconnects while trying to make a call or receiving one. And each time, if you are also on roaming, the charges were being deducted. Even the internet services on phone were not working but when one tried to connect he was losing money to the operators though he could not use the services.

It is embarrassing, irritating and frustrating. One pays for his inability to have the services. It is queer.

A call drop, technically speaking, represents the service provider’s inability to maintain a call, either incoming or outgoing, once it has been correctly established. In India, call drops are a performance indicator for the country’s telecom networks. In many cities, mobile users have to rush from one room to another or drive around neighborhoods to find better signals and better voice quality. Some angry users are going so far as accusing telecom services providers, who charge for call by the minute, of deliberately engineering call drops to increase revenues.

India is adding millions of new mobile users each quarter and the country’s active subscriber base of 869 million is fast closing in on a billion. Telecom operators, however, have been unable to adequately ramp up infrastructure and technology to keep pace. Despite the apparent ubiquity of telecom towers atop buildings in Indian cities, poor voice quality, blind spots and abrupt termination of calls have become such a bane in India’s telecom industry that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stepped in and asked officials to sort the problem.

So the latest court ruling of the supreme court has come as a surprise. Learned judges know the law better but a common man fails to understand the logic how a caller is responsible for the call drop or simply disconnecting it. It is also difficult to understand why a caller would disconnect a call. For each such disconnection, a caller pays penal charges. In other words, his “folly”, if it is so, as per the ruling, enriches the operator.

The court has said that TRAI ruling of imposing penalty of Re 1 is illegal.  Holding that TRAI has failed to explain the reasons for fixing Re 1 compensation for each call drop and a cap on three call drops per day, the court said the regulation is based on mere guess-work. “These matters go out of mere guess work, and into the realm of unreasonableness, as obviously, as has been held by us, there was no intelligent care and deliberation before any of these parameters have been fixed,” it said.

It may be so. In the whole debate one thing that has not come into discussion is how much the callers are losing a day and what are the hefty earnings of the operators. The callers are unanimous that Re 1 one compensation subject to a maximum or Rs 3 a day is the lowest one can have and not on the higher side.

Nobody disputes that call drop itself is a penalty for a caller. It is also not unknown is that it is not easy to fathom the intricacies of the problem to the last digit. The TRAI as it appears had fixed the provisions at the minimum. There is very little transparency on call drop data but it can be safely said that most companies have multiple sites where the call drop incidence is much above the stipulated 2 percent ceiling.

A regulator primarily tries to protect the operation of a business. In this case too it had taken that caution as to not prescribing a high penalty. That could have been detrimental to the interest of the industry.

The regulator also has a responsibility to the user. It could not ignore that. For deficiencies of the services of the operator, the user/consumer cannot be penalized. Following this principle, TRAI had awarded the ruling imposing a minimum penalty on the operator.

Unfortunately, it is not unknown that the industry wants to thrive more on earnings that are not due to it. In the case of telecom, it is all the more blatant.

Call drops could be the undoing of several booming sectors, including India’s mobile-powered e-commerce industry, where frequent call drops make consumers nervous about payments. The problem has reached such dire proportions across the country that TRAI has indicated that telecom service providers need to compensate users for dropped calls.

As if to silence the critics, India’s top telco Bharti Airtel announced recently that it would bill by the second instead of per-minute. Another operator Telenor of Norway said it would reimburse users for call drops and commit to quality customer service. So TRAI’s observation has virtually been accepted by the industry in practice.

The judiciary needs to review its ruling. The issue is not about scoring a law point. It is about propriety and principles of natural justice. Getting redressal for a corporate ‘mistake’ is difficult. If ruling on call drop becomes a precedent, it would cost the consumers in India in all fields heavily and establish an unruly system, which the courts would find difficult to correct. Let the nation abide by TRAI’s observation and ensure justice to all.


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