The Cellular Deception

Express Yourself!!

Be Inspired!!

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!


How BROAD is your broadband??

“The buzzword for the 21st century India must be Roti, Kapda, Makaan, aur Bandwidth.”

When the late NASSCOM chief Devang Mehta: one of the pioneers and soothsayers of the IT revolution in India made this statement; little took him seriously. The IT bubble which had grown to a burgeoning level had just bust, bringing down the stock markets and countless ‘dot-com’s with it. People were being ‘laid off’ by the thousands. Many an NRI returned seeking greener pastures at home sans globetrotting jobs. Analysts were foretelling doom almost on a daily basis. The crash had such vast repercussions that even free email services like Yahoo were either reducing mailbox sizes or going pay!

Seven years later, things couldn’t have been better. Today, the industry is almost at the pinnacle of success. The new wave of hope was brought about by a mammoth called Google, which with its repertoire of ‘free’ services, especially GMail & YouTube, literally conquered the World Wide Web! The web, finally had lost its elitist appeal, and became as ubiquitous as the erstwhile Ford Model-T!! The ubiquity of the web had a direct consequence: skyrocketing internet connections. Today, at least two-thirds of the US populace has direct access to the WWW. Of these, at least 54 % have a solid broadband connection, while a mind boggling 80 % of the office users have at least a T1 line to hit the web. The corresponding figures for our country, if publicized, could bring a drastic end to the current outsourcing wave. A measly 0.02 %( of the entire population), that is, if the DoT guys have got their stats right!!

Broadband in India is rather a joke that has been regularly doing its rounds all over the country. The raucous part of the joke is that, there are a plethora of Broadband Company ads, which beat the drums boasting about ‘speeds’ with rock-bottom rates ‘starting at Rs 50’. A minute-long talk with the smooth-talking customer-service executive would reveal that the bandwidth is 128kbps, and the user has 50 MB of free download every month! And, even 128 kbps is something of a mirage. Often the user gets speeds at around 64 kbps… (Wow!! Broadband speeds at par with dialup!!) And, mind you: kbps means Kilobits per second, so you get download speeds of 8 Kilo Bytes per second… Now you wonder why all the US companies outsource all their work to a country where there aren’t even reliable broadband connections!

A major factor behind the staggering lack-of-growth of broadband connections is the lack of awareness about broadband. In a country where not even half of the population is literate, let alone computer literate, the eye-popping figures of the U.S. seem out of reach. The penetration of internet has been inexorably slow over the years. People with dialup were too complacent to shift over to a reliable broadband connection in the beginning. Since the advent of broadband in India in the late nineties, it took some time for ‘broadband’ tariffs to come down to realistic levels. Interestingly, cyber pornography played a subtle, but significant role in fuelling broadband connections! It came as a welcome relief for the average Indian voyeur, who was all-the-more harried, spending those feisty hours before the CRT monitor waiting for his 3-minute Paris Hilton video to download!! Free (& obviously fast) downloads of Bollywood music & movies through countless online portals were just the icing to the Broadband cake.

Broadband is definitely not a luxury. It is the fuel for growth. It offers immense possibilities for telemedicine, cheaper phone calls, video conferencing, and what not! The US figures did not shower down from heaven just like that. It took a spirited private sector & a non-interfering government to attain the midas-touch. Ironically, we needed a wholly-government owned BSNL to drastically revive the broadband sector. When BSNL launched DataOne, its pioneer broadband service using ADSL2+ technology, many ‘a’ heart was thrilled! With speeds starting from 256kbps, it was, so-to-speak, the first true-blue broadband connection with rates starting from Rs 250 p.m. & luxurious download limits. Again, it took another spirited decision from BSNL to increase the base capacity of all connections to 2 Mbps, to give the private broadband service providers a run for their money. Post that change on the 1st of January, 2007, almost every private sector broadband service provider today has at least a couple of plans offering 2 Mbps bandwidth.

Not all is well with DataOne either! Often, the user has to wait harrowingly for about 2 months or so after booking to get his connection ‘delivered’. Travails of being a PSU, perhaps… This scenario reminds one of the earlier ‘wait’ for a lone landline connection, which could even run unto years! The only solution to the broadband problem essentially is the freeing of more bandwidth. True that BSNL did usher in the true broadband revolution. However, the downplaying of Private operators can solely be attributed to superannuated government policies. As a first step, the government must stop laying its leg in the way of adding more bandwidth by reviewing its policies. A significant sum must also be invested in infrastructure, countering rapid technology-obsolescence. Only then can roti, makaan, & kapda stay hand-in-hand with bandwidth!