Much Ado About Free Incoming Calls

Updated: Jan 26 2003, 05:30am hrs
The simmering volcano of interconnect was expected to blow up any time with the two heavyweights, Reliance and Tata, entering the fray of mobile telephony. Their entry in the telecom game with limited mobility servicesbacked by the basic services incentiveswas enough to shake the grounds beneath the Indian cellular industry. However, the turbulence this time was also felt by innocent phone users as the fight among the players over interconnect jammed their phones. The only incentive the user could get at the end: free cellular to cellular incoming calls across the networks.

Pandoras Box was opened by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) when it suddenly decided to take action on a month old complaint from Tata Teleservices and issuing a directive to cellular operators to provide interconnect to Tata Teleservices Ltd (TTSL) immediately and report within three days. Incidentally, the minister of communication and information technology, Pramod Mahajan left for a tour of South Africa and Egypt on the same day last week.

The Trai directive came as a surprise to cellular operators, who had denied interconnect to limited mobility operators unless they were paid the reciprocal access charges (what they pay to other fixed line and limited mobility operators for termination of their calls). The status quo was in favour of cellular operators as interconnect was a major hindrance for limited mobility businesses as customers were not ready to buy their phones unless they could link up to the 1-crore cellular subscriber base.

The authority, in a directive issued on Thursday, asked cellular companiesoperating in Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Naduto provide physical interconnection to Tata Teleservices Services Limited (TTSL) with immediate effect. However, the authority did not suggest or mention any commercial terms of interconnect to be followed by the operators.

In a letter written to cellular operators in response to an application filed by TTSL last month, TRAI said, .... To ensure the compliance of licence terms and conditions and to protect consumer interest as per Trai (Amendment) Act, 2000, the authority hereby directs you to ensure completion of calls originating in TTSL network and terminating in your network with immediate effect. Compliance may be reported in three days of this directive.

The cellular operators initially went into a huddle and spent some time absorbing the shock of Trais directive. The Bharti Televenture spokesperson said, We will suitably respond to the TRAI letter. The basic operators, however, welcomed the Trai directive. It will help resolve the issue that was troubling the operators as well as subscribers for a long time, said S C Khanna, secretary general of Association of Basic Telecom Operators (ABTO) S C Khanna.

Cellular companies finally decided to defy the Trai directive and refused to connect with TTSL repeating their demand of equitable access charges. We will not interconnect under any circumstance without reciprocal access charges, said the largest cellular player, Bharti Tele-Venture chairman and managing director Sunil Bharti Mittal.

The defiance irked the regulator. Next day, Trai issued another letter to cellular operators warning them that they would face the consequences of disobeying its directive. Either connect or face action, the authority said, but failed to spell out the punishment. Unofficially, sources close to Trai said that the only course of action would be legal proceedings since the authority has no powers to take punitive action on its own.

The cellular lobby decided to hit back. An open letter to the Trai chairman complaining about discrimination and explaining the industrys viewpoint on related issues and demands was published in all major newspapers by cellular operators. All cellular companies came together and held an elaborate media conference in Delhi to justify their stand against the regulator.

We are not denying interconnect as being propagated by the other side. But, we will interconnect on terms that are not disadvantageous to us, said Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) chairman Rajeev Chandrashekhar in a media conference organised in Delhi on Tuesday.

Cellular operators stressed their demand for an equitable regulatory framework and asked for removal of anomaly in access charges levied on terminating outgoing calls on fixed and limited mobility operators. This anomaly can be resolved in many ways. Either we should be allowed to interconnect free without paying any access charge or we should be allowed to charge the same amount from other service operators to terminate calls on our network, Mr Chandrashekhar told the media.

The noise made the regulator angry. Showcause notices were issued to cellular operators to explain why action should not be taken against them. The operators were also asked to appear in front of Trai this week on Monday.

Meanwhile, cellular operators approached the Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) against Trais directive.

The action-packed week was coming to an end when Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) sprung a surprise on January 17 by blocking calls to and from cellular networks in Delhi. Most of the cellular users in Delhi had a tough time connecting with fixed line phones across the country on Friday. Cellular companies confirmed receiving complaints from subscribers and blamed MTNL for blocking interconnect between cellular and fixed line networks.

But what did MTNL have to do with the battle that was between cellular companies and Trai or TTSL In fact, limited mobility operators were using the MTNL and and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) networks to reroute their calls in absence of a direct interconnect. These redirected calls were also being blocked by cellular operators.

Since last night, there have been cases of customers unable to make or receive calls from MTNL phones. Clearly, this is not a coincidence, a Bharti Cellular official said last weekend, adding that the company was trying to approach MTNL for resolving the problem but no response had been received so far. Hutchison Essar Telecom vice president Harit Nagpal also confirmed the development.

Interestingly, MTNL officials, like the companys phones, were not reachable. The problem continued till Sunday morning. Incidentally this was also the day Mr Mahajan was supposed to return to Delhi after a week long tour.

The minister arrived on Monday (January 20) and confessed that he knew about the problem and had backed MTNLs decision. I knew about it (MTNL blocking the calls) but did not oppose it, he told media. In another public meeting on the same day, minister justified MTNLs act by saying: If they close doors on you, you should also close doors for them.

Mr Mahajan finally intervened. Cellular operators were called for a discussion with the minister and asked to offer interconnect to limited mobility operators in return for the assurance that they would be paid access charges in retrospect as per the recommendation of Trai. They had to oblige.

Taking the opportunity to create moral pressureon the minister and limited mobility companies to pay access chargesfrom the consumer side, cellular operators announced free cellular to cellular (both pre-paid and post-paid) incoming calls across different operators. However, the government operators, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), chose to opt out of the free incoming call club.

At the time of going to the press, Trai was all set to come out with its recommendations for basic services tariffs that will also include interconnect access charges to be paid by each type of operator to other operators. After a long wait, Trai finally completed its home work and has recommended its tariff and interconnect charges on Saturday. While it tried to balance the anomalies of access charges among the industry players, it has also revised tariffs in order to match the cost of the operators. Although the price revision was due for a long time, it is yet to be seen how well it goes down with the operators and consumers.