|Telcos vs Trai|
|Wednesday, 10 August 2016 04:01|
Only courts can resolve this, public outburst of no use
Given how the plethora of consultation papers by the telecom regulator, Trai, seem to be hitting incumbent telcos, it is not surprising they should want to call out Trai for this bias. There are, for instance, two consultations aimed at either lowering the R27,000-crore annual interconnection usage charge (IUC) that telcos pay when their subscribers call those on another network—this is to defray part of the cost of building out networks, including expensive spectrum—or to remove it altogether by moving to a bill-and-pay system. When Trai did not move to bill-and-pay all these decades or when the number of telcos rose to more than 10 per circle, it is worrisome it should be considering this on the eve of RJio starting operations—lowering IUC from the current 14 paise per minute or moving to bill-and-pay will be a boon to newcomers like RJio. Similarly, it is unfair that after the Supreme Court struck down Trai’s ill-conceived call-drop penalty as ‘arbitrary, unreasonable and non-transparent’, the regulator should have a new consultation on redefining quality of service by wanting to measure call-drops at the level of districts—instead of each service area which is, roughly, a state—or even at the level of their base stations, among other measures. Given even Trai had admitted—in a technical paper—that the call drops were due to reasons beyond the telcos’ control, not surprisingly, they regarded the call-drop campaign and penalty as an attempt to portray them in a poor light at a time when RJio was entering the fray.
The fact that the regulator has not allowed telcos to do differential pricing of data is worrying, but what is even more troubling is that while this can be done through what is called an intranet, Trai has not cared to define what this is despite repeated requests. This is especially troubling since, unless telcos can provide low-cost/free movies/shows/videos to subscribers in partnership with existing content-providers, the growth in data volumes is going to be low—it has been slowing over the last few quarters and 4G conversion has been poor—and this will be a big handicap since RJio already boasts of its own entertainment libraries that are quite vast.
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) press release details these and more actions that ‘point to a pattern of discrimination against the existing mobile operators’. The last time COAI and the regulator had such a public spat was in the early 2000s when Trai was allowing groups like Reliance and Tata to offer mobile services through the backdoor—at that time, though, the government was an active party while this time around COAI speaks of the government’s ‘stellar role in formulating a progressive regulatory environment’. The problem with the public outburst, though, is that it is not clear whom the missive is addressed to. Issues like IUC and call-drop penalties are solely within Trai’s purview, not that of the government—so if COAI has to take on Trai, it has to do this in court. And it cannot do that by alleging Trai is trying to advance the implementation of IUC—it has to wait for Trai’s regulation and then go all out in various courts in the manner it did in the early 2000s. It is, though, possible COAI feels the public calling out will be good enough to convince Trai to retrace its steps.