Though the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on Thursday asked Reliance Jio to stop its third promotional offer — Summer Surprise — regulatory experts said the regulator’s move was full of legal lacunae as it did not issue any direction to the operator to immediately stop the offer and revoke the benefits it had offered consumers who came on board till March 31 and later.
A top regulatory expert told FE, “There’s no provision in the Trai Act of issuing an advisory. The authority has powers to issue directions, legal orders, regulations, and tariff orders, and none of these were issued against Jio.” He that if Jio was in breach of rules, it needed to be issued a directive to withdraw the offer. In that case the offer not only stops immediately, but the benefits can’t be extended to anyone who has signed it till a particular date or time.
Trai secretary Sudhir Gupta said on Friday that Jio, which announced the Summer Surprise offer on March 31, has so far not filed the tariff plan with the authority. According to the expert, Jio not filing the tariff was also a breach of rules. “The regulation is that a week before the announcement of a tariff plan, an operator needs to file its prospective tariff with Trai. Then Trai gets a week’s time to study it within which if it finds it not in sync with rules, it can ask it to stop, which is a direction, not an advisory,” he said.
Gupta said that the regulator had asked Jio to explain how its Summer Surprise offer fits into the regulatory framework, but did not find the operators’ response satisfactory. “On April 1, we had asked Jio for certain details (of the complimentary offer) and had called them on April 5 for a discussion. We asked them how the three-month complimentary benefits fit into the regulatory framework, and the explanation given by Jio to us was not satisfactory,” he said.
Trai chairman RS Sharma told PTI, “We examined it (tariff) and found that it was not in accordance with regulatory framework, so we advised them to stop it.”
On Thursday evening, Jio said in a statement that it was withdrawing the offer because Trai advised it to do so. “Trai has advised Jio to withdraw the three months’ complimentary benefits of Jio Summer Surprise. Jio accepts this decision. Jio is in the process of fully complying with the regulator’s advice, and will be withdrawing the three months’ complimentary benefits of Jio Summer Surprise as soon as operationally feasible, over the next few days. However, all customers who have subscribed to Jio Summer Surprise offer prior to its discontinuation will remain eligible for the offer,” the company said.
This means that consumers who recharged for Rs 303 till Thursday midnight and for the next few days will be eligible to avail the three-month extended free offer. Trai’s Gupta affirmed this on Friday when he said, “It’s difficult to say… In large networks to stop something…it takes some time… It can be a few hours, one or one and half days.”
The move by Trai asking Jio to stop its extended free service comes at a time when the former has been under fire by incumbent operators for having allowed the latter to continue with its promotional offer beyond the stipulated 90-day period. The first offer was from September till December 2016, the second from January till March and the third was commencing from April.
Even the Telecom Commission had questioned Trai’s stance since it had led to a decline in the government’s revenues from licence fee and spectrum usage charge.
Incumbent operators like Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular have already challenged Trai’s lenient approach towards allowing Jio with its extended promotional offer in the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal, where the matter is still sub judice. However, the TDSAT has asked several inconvenient questions to Trai with regard to its handling of the promotional offer and asked it to review its stance and revert to it. The next hearing on the matter is due.
On March 31, Jio said that of its more than 100 million subscribers, 72 million had converted into Prime members by paying the annual Rs 99 charge.
– Rishi Ranjan Kava