Telecom service providers are happy and relieved with the Supreme Court quashing telecom regulatory authority TRAI’s pelty rule on call drops. But TRAI and telecom companies will have to brainstorm in the coming days how to give some satisfaction to mobile phone users. For the call drop problem is not just about short-changing customers, it also threatens to put the skids under Prime Minister rendra Modi’s much vaunted Digital India plan. Under a tariff system which charges mobile phone customers on per minute pulse rates, it is frustrating indeed if calls are termited within seconds, forcing users to make several subsequent calls to complete a conversation. It becomes an absolute nuisance when a user is interrupted repeatedly while trying to make an online payment. But the TRAI had reasons to suspect that telecom service providers were raking in extra revenues through such dropped calls, as users were paying per minute rather than per second charges. And so on December 16 last, the TRAI announced its pelty rule under which telecom companies, from January 1 this year, would have to compensate users at the rate of Rs 1 per dropped call, with a maximum pelty of three dropped calls per day. Unfortutely, the pelty rule was not worked out properly, for which reason the Supreme Court struck it down on Wednesday, thereby setting aside a Delhi High Court ruling that had upheld it earlier.
Asking how the TRAI arrived at its compensation formula, the apex court said the rule was based on ‘guess work’, that there was no intelligent care and deliberation before the parameters were fixed. Laying the fault entirely with the service provider is arbitrary, unreasoble and non-transparent, the SC bench ruled, pointing out that the consumer may also be at fault. The apex court’s observation was in response to the telecom companies’ argument that determining the cause for call drop wasn’t foolproof — like the user’s phone battery running down or pre-paid account getting exhausted during a call, apart from the possibility of manipulation to earn compensation. During the hearing, the Supreme Court also wondered whether TRAI had taken its own technical paper about call drops into consideration, which had ascribed the problem to several reasons including paucity of spectrum, capacity constraints and overload, radio interference between neighboring cells, need for getting clearances from multiple agencies and right-of-way issues, shortage of mobile phone towers and rising public opposition to such towers. Elated with the apex court order, telecom companies with an eye to the next round of airwaves auction, are now calling for fixing the ‘real’ issues like affordable spectrum, setting up more mobile phone towers and getting local authorities to help in putting up telecom infrastructure. For example, though the country’s mobile phone network is estimated to need at least 6,25,000 base transmitting stations, the actual number is only around 4,25,000.
Armed with the apex court relief from paying compensation to users, telecom companies will however be making a huge mistake if they think the ‘high costs’ they are incurring in purchasing spectrum and setting up networks gives them license to short-change users. In state after state, particularly in NE states, there have been complaints galore of poor quality of service and extortiote charging against several telecom companies. Users need to be protected from such malpractices. The apex court ruling has also made it clear that Parliament can make and ect a call drop compensation rule, if it so desires, while TRAI’s authority will remain intact. In January this year, the NDA government upped the stakes of its ambitious Digital India campaign, by targeting all government services to be made available on mobile phones in the next five years. So the call drop problem needs to be addressed at the earliest if this e-governce initiative is not to remain an empty slogan on paper.