Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) needs to be proactive in addressing issue of Value Added Service

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) needs to be proactive in addressing issue of
Value Added Service
TRAI has ensured the growth of telecom industry in India for which they need to be complemented. With its proactive approach, the telecom services have reached to the villages.  The total number of mobile connection in India now stands close to 100 crores. The total population of India is expected to be about 120 crores. With this we can safely say that teledensity of telecom users is close to 80.  All economic strata of population in India have been penetrated with a mobile connection as one can easily find the penetration of the mobile connection with even disadvantageous class of society, be it rickshaw wallah, maid or kabaadiwalla.  It is also seen that the prepaid mobile connection is one of the favorite modes of the usage by most of the telecom subscribers. Appox. 80% subscribers fall in the category of prepaid mobile users that means close to 80 crores users are having prepaid mobile connection. Another statistics that could be important for the analysis is that more than 30 crore users are in the rural areas. Another important statistics is that almost 90% of the prepaid users are the subscribers of private telecom companies.
Now the overall category of prepaid users who are paying in advance to the telecom companies  are the most affected by the unethical business practices of the telecom industry.
One of the problems which most of the users are facing is pertaining to the activation of value added services on their mobile without being consented and the money gets deducted from their prepaid balance. Caller Tune being the most common value added service getting activated onto the prepaid mobile. TRAI regulations stipulate that no value added services is activated without seeking explicit consent of the subscribers. The regulation has even specified certain steps that need to be followed by the telecom companies before any value added service is activated.  As far as regulations are concerned, they are good enough to prevent any company to activate any value added service onto the mobile without explicit consent of the subscriber. As usual the companies tend to violate the norms and Government do not have machinery to address such violations. TRAI regulations specify that before any service which is chargeable is activated, the company need to play the IVR or send SMS seek their intention through pressing of two buttons and again message informing charges for such service and then seeking consent in the form of yes through pressing a button or sending SMS. However in most of the cases, the users complain that they had disconnected the call when such messages were being played and immediately they received a SMS that
“Thank you for subscribing to -------------- services and an amount of Rs. ... has been deducted from your prepaid balance”
The main question arises as to how the procedures involving 3 to 4 steps of to and fro messages have been bypassed by those companies are hard to find out.  TRAI regulations also specify that where the company receives a complaint within 24 hrs of such activation, the amount need to be refunded back to the subscribers within 24 hrs. of the complaint raised by the subscribers. In most of the complaints, the amount is also refunded.  However, the question is as to how many subscribers are able to raise their voice or even a simple complaint to the customer care centres. The result is the menace created by such attitude of telecom companies for unethical business practices as TRAI does not audit their system to look into the root cause of such unauthorised activation of the value added services.  The customers who are able to notice such deductions and are able to complain to the customer care are refunded the amount so deducted and rest of the amount deducted from those users who are either not able to notice such deductions or able to complain to the customer care centre gets pocketed by the telecom companies. The more surprising part is that TRAI has also allowed auto renewal of such services after an each interval and money keeps on deducting from their prepaid balances irrespective of the fact as to whether subscriber requires or not. This is the first time in the history that the services are renewed without being asked by the customers and the customers are asked to deactivate within 72 hrs. Why the time of the subscriber is forced to be wasted in getting involved in a process of deactivation? The services get renewed if no confirmation is received back. The condition of “no confirmation“ could be due to several factors like:  the subscribers mobile may be switched off/ may be in roaming / may get deleted along with other telemarketing messages or escaped the attention due to his per-occupancy in other exigencies, might be hospitalized etc. etc.  Have you ever heard that if anyone has ordered a pizza to a restaurant on one day, the restaurant will again send a pizza to his home next day unless he telephone the pizza wallah that he do not require pizza today? Or will the shopkeeper send a pizza to his house with a message that if he don’t want to receive it please contact back to the pizza wallah?
The procedure of deactivation of auto renewed services for those category of the subscribers (disadvantageous class) as described above would be as difficult as lodging a complaint to the customer care at the initial stage of activating the services without seeking explicit consent. The result is that the subscriber’s money is being pocketed unethically by the telecom companies every month. To very rough estimates such unethical business may not be less than Rs. 500 crores a month or may be even much more where the services have been activated / renewed without seeking subscriber’s consent and in other terms such services becomes “imposed” onto the subscribers.  
Now what were the compulsions of TRAI to allow such auto renewal is to be best answered by the TRAI officials themselves.
I have already submitted an application under RTI Act 2005 and the information is yet to be received. PIO has not submitted the information within 30 days and the time period for the 1st Appellate Authority has also exceeded another 30 days. The case is being now referred to Chief Information Commission.
In view of above, will it be out of place to demand from TRAI to incorporate following into the regulation that
 1). No activation / auto renewal of any kind of value added services. Auto renewal of services should be against confirmation of the subscribers only.  
2). In case a complaint of auto activation and auto renewal is made by the subscriber directly or through VCO/NGO to the company, an amount of ten times of the deducted amount  to be refunded to the subscriber, and
3). In case the complaint is escalated to TRAI for such auto activation and auto renewal, an amount equal to 100 times of the deducted amount be refunded to the subscriber within 24 hrs.
        After all the consumer has value of its time and cannot be taken for a ride
TRAI may fix reasonable bench mark with a stipulation that if the number of complaints exceeds  ......  in a month, a penalty to be deposited by the telecom companies to the Government account.
(This post is being forwarded to officials of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India through emails)

My next post scheduled 8th July 2012
  Regulation on Unsolicited Commercial Communication- Failure or vested interest?  

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