The Government of India recently announced a slew of new programs to help create a knowledge economy under the broad rubric of the ‘Digital India’ program. Possibly the most important aspect of this program is ensuring appropriate telecom network access to all parts of India (through projects such as the National Fiber Optic Network). Providing network access to citizens is quite clearly the first and most vital step towards ensuring equitable access to service delivery and the many secondary projects that form part of the Digital India concept.
However, given existing models of service provision – particularly in the last mile, it is debatable whether the Governments attempts to ensure access to all will be successful. Two of the most problematic aspects of last mile connectivity have been the issue of cartelization by private sector service providers (who often divide up a circle and lay physical infrastructure to only certain dedicated portions, thereby ensuring that they have a captive consumer group and lowered costs) and the denial of services to consumers by service providers (on grounds such as unavailability of connections etc). These practices are clearly against the prevalent legal regime and it is essential that the relevant regulatory authorities step in to take corrective action in order to ensure that the Digital Divide is reduced.
The existing licensing framework for telecom services treats the provision of fixed line and other Services provided under the license as a matter of right to the consumer / subscriber. A service provider, must, once a request has been made for a connection (which in itself cannot be refused), provide the same within a reasonable time (subject only to conditions such as credit checks).
According to Part V of the licenses issued by the Department of Telecommunications, Government of India, to all providers of broadband and fixed line services (pertaining to Operating Conditions:
“30.1. The Licensee shall register demand / request for telephone connection without any discrimination from any applicant, at any place in the licensed service area and provide the Service, unless otherwise directed by the Licensor. The Licensee shall not in any manner discriminate between subscribers and provide service on the same commercial principle and shall be required to maintain a transparent, open to inspection, waiting list…The Licensee shall launch the Service on commercial basis only after commencement of registration in the manner prescribed. Before commencement of Service in an area, the Licensee shall notify and publicize the address where any subscriber can register demand /request for telephone connection”; and,
“30.2. The Licensee shall widely publicize provision of service and shall not refuse registration of demand in the licensed service area. In case the provision of telephone connection to an applicant is not feasible for technical or other reasons beyond the control of Licensee, then the Licensee shall endeavour to make arrangement for providing connections in such cases within a reasonable time.”
From these provisions it is clear that all service providers are mandated to:
(a) register requests for provision of relevant telecom services from all prospective subscribers, within the relevant service area, without discrimination;
(b) maintain a publicly available register, containing a list of pending applications / requests for provision of services;
(c) notify to the public, the place and form in which a subscriber can register demand for a particular telecom service.
It is crucial to note that service providers may not refuse registration of demand for connections, including in situations where there is no immediate (physical/technical) availability of a connection. In such circumstances, the service provider must act so as to provide the requested service to the subscriber within a reasonable time (but nonetheless, a request must be taken by the service provider).
Many telecom companies are acting in gross violation of the aforementioned terms of the telecom licenses issued by the Government of India. Market practice has evolved so as to enable service providers to act with complete impunity and avoid the license terms detailed above, thereby resulting in clear and direct harm to the consumers of telecom services in India.
Most private sector service providers do not provide prospective subscribers with any Customer Application Form (CAF) either online or in a physical form (it may be noted that the only telecom providers to actually make a CAF available to prospective consumers appear to be the publicly owned companies MTNL and BSNL). A CAF should be the basis for any customer to register their demand for a service – and this is currently not possible through any private sector telecom service provider.
Instead, virtually every private sector service provider first requires a prospective consumer to ‘unofficially’ register demand (including by providing a physical address where the service is to be provided), and to then conduct a feasibility test for provision of the service. In the event, the feasibility test (conducted usually on a completely non-transparent basis) shows that requisite service can be provided at the relevant location requested by the prospective consumer, only then is the CAF provided to the consumer.
So if a consumer desires a service not immediately supplied or provided at a particular location (even if within a relevant circle where a service is offered by the service provider), say on account of unavailability of physical connections, there is no way in which demand can be officially registered and therefore no duty cast on the service provider to provide the service within a ‘reasonable time’ as mandated by the licensing terms.
This is clearly a case of defrauding Indian citizens on a large scale, particularly those from weaker and more economically backward classes of society. Such a system permits service providers to pick and choose what parts of a telecom circle they will provide services in and permits them to ignore parts of a circle where they do not wish to provide a service. Typically this will mean that service providers can completely ignore laying last mile infrastructure to less well off areas within their telecom circles (and then disregard all requests for services in such an area by claiming no availability of connections and relevant infrastructure).
This practice, which appears to be ubiquitous in its use by all private sector telecom service providers, is in utter disregard for the terms of the licenses provided to them and clearly acts against the wishes of the Government of India in ensuring maximum connectivity to the public.
Of course, one must also note the complete absence of any public register (containing list of connections demanded / list of applications for provision of services). Such a register is not available either in physical or online form through any of the private sector service providers. In fact, it is surprising that despite most private sector telcom companies carrying out online billing etc. and also taking orders / requests for connection on their websites, none of them provide any publicly available register of requests for connection.
it is incumbent on TRAI to take necessary action, including through setting up a mechanism for consistent oversight of the process of registration and provision of telecom services to consumers, in order to ensure that the Government of India’s plans to ensure maximum connectivity to all Indian citizens is realised at the earliest. TRAI must act to frame and implement guidelines mandating a uniform and transparent process for service providers to take and register requests for provision of services, including by providing an appropriate and standardised Consumer Application Form format.
Without such urgent measures being adopted, the Digital India program will remain a mere pipe dream and the governments plans to bridge the digital divide will be doomed to failure.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick