If you’ve been living in the country of India for a couple of years the least, and you are that kind of person without much vision problems, notwithstanding acceptable doses of long/short sight, these punch lines might seem rather familiar. Behind these extensively-researched, smartly-thought-about promotional tag lines (an underpaid, part-time Rediffusion copywriter’s contribution, perhaps) lies the lurking persona of a corporate behemoth: Bharti Telecom, the singular entity that runs AirTel – the self-proclaimed “India’s no 1 network”. One tends to ponder upon the authenticity of such punch lines, for, often you reciprocate a mixture of emotions which are far from ‘inspiring’, when you ‘Express yourself’ with your mobile phone, thanks to the eye-popping call charges incurred by you despite the rock bottom rates advertised. Indeed, another comic-caper which makes our rustic-railway minister’s light hearted moments seem disgusting!!
It all began in a rather romanticized fashion. The year 1995 brought Mobile phones to India. There was countrywide rhetoric about India ushering in a revolution in communication. The first half-a-decade saw the birth of countless operators – 75 percent of which either went bust or merged with someone else. From a jaw-dropping seventy or so during the 2000, there are hardly eight national level operators in the country. If you exclude BSNL – the PSU telecom service, the only operator that remained independent all along is AirTel. Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman of Bharti, somehow had sufficient capital to keep his company running despite back-breaking losses. It was only recently (two years back), did AirTel report a total turn-around. And how? Today, Bharti has revenues to the order of thousands of crores of rupees. True to its tag-line, AirTel today is miles ahead of its fellow countrywide operators in terms of number of subscribers. Ever thought how the once-upon-a-time underdog emerged a hands-down winner? Simple! A suave & smart marketing stratergy involving bigtime deception of the subscriber. Allow me to throw some light.
To make things simple, let’s consider the Kerala Telecom circle. AirTel launched its operations in Kerala in mid-2002. By early 2003, when TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) decided to promote the ‘calling party pays’ regime, making incoming calls free, AirTel barely managed to cross the 100000 mark in terms of subscribers, while its counterparts were fully utilizing the sunshine to make hay. This is the juncture that needs specific introspection. Mr Mittal came up with this idea to lure upcoming subscribers. Soon all national dailies saw full-page ads proclaiming free AirTel to AirTel calls & free sms. The spurt in new connections was so high that, AirTel found it difficult to handle the traffic. Within a month, these ‘new’ subscribers were dumbfounded by the obnoxious call rates they were being charged despite calls being ‘free’. Yes! AirTel, discreetly withdrew the offer. The customer service executive’s semi-raunchy voice replied: “Sorry sir! Didn’t you read the terms and conditions?” To their dismay, their mobile was more like a fixed line. AirTel’s signal was too weak for calls in many areas. The only saving grace was an infinitesimal ‘extra’ talk-clarity. (That-is if your ears are sharp!)
Since then, it was almost raining offers!! There would be an offer almost every month. AirTel would beat the drums about it, many people would fall in, only to be deceived at a later stage. The latest of such is the Rs 65/- offer which was at once the lifeblood of half the country: offering smses at 2p & calls (A2A) at 20p. Today, that offer has morphed into an unappealing one. AirTel is now the fastest growing mobile network in Kerala. Go to any college or educational institution. You’ll find that 90% of students have AirTel connections. Though, it’s lagging behind Idea & BSNL which have over 1.5 million subscribers each in the region, AirTel is soon poised to overtake both with its ever-expanding network & that kitty of never-ending ‘offers’! Besides, AirTel guys have the unique knack of smelling out any change in TRAI policies beforehand. Consequently, before other operators resonated policy changes with lowered tariffs, AirTel ostensibly took the first step, proclaiming to be the ‘first’ to do so!!
Mouthing all these might make me look prophetic, but alas! I’m also a victim of the AirTel deception, or, to put it in the hottest slang word in the block, ‘theappu’. I was rather satisified with my BSNL connection, the only cons of which were high call rates to non-bsnl phones & monthly-recharge options. With peer pressure mounting (not a SINGLE person I knew, other than relatives of course, had BSNL!!), and new AirTel towers springing up near my place, I decided to give in. Thanks to a family-friend of a dealer, I got a 99 prepaid for free. Rs 100 talktime and 1 month validity. I enjoyed the first month. Thanks to the Rs 35/- scheme which lowered my a2a call rates to 20p, my frugal Nokia 2600 had made friends with from my ear. The euphoria lasted hardly a month. And, the first shock came when I recharged for 1 year validity, Rs 498/-. There was this offer providing 498 minutes of a2a talktime. Considering my talk-habits, I desperately needed that. I recharged on the 30th of August, but got the talktime credited only two days later. Strangely, I didn’t get the 498 minutes. The customer care official was reassuring enough. She gave a 48 hour deadline. 72 hours gone, still no talktime!! Harried, I tried customer care again, only to get the shock of my life!! The offer was closed on the 31st of August, said the officer. I protested. I’d paid the money on the 30th, the officer wouldn’t relent. He banged the phone down on me.
That was the beginning of a saga. I realized how the cycle went. Reluctantly, I went for the 35 again, only to see the a2a call charge has risen to 30ps. The second shock came, when I discovered that they’d removed the a2m 50p from the 35 offer (10 minutes to a hutch phone of a friend & 10 rupees gone with the wind!)
There’s nothing we can do about this. All we can do is mutely watch all these cellphone companies cheat us and make money. Now you know why Bharti & Idea stocks are rising like hell! Now you know why Vodafone paid a fortune to get the controlling stake in the highly-overvalued Hutch stock! India, essentially, is the mobile operators’ paradise. With roughly 5 million Indians going mobile every month, and with Nokia 1110s selling at rock-bottom Rs 1399s, the operators are doing their best to capture the subscribers. But, do their networks relent? Only a small fraction of operators’ revenues are spent on network-expansion. And, by network expansion, all they do is adding more towers. Soon, the market will reach its saturation, and the situation will only get worse. Expect sharp rises in call & sms rates in a couple of years’ time. Brace yourself!!
By the way, there is a solution to this problem. Religiously take your mobile & shatter it onto a solid hard surface. Man!! I’m not joking. You’ll attain nirvana!! Peace of mind assured, until you move on to your next handset!