While BSNL Internet service in rural areas is the pits, private ISPs, like Tata DoCoMo and Airtel, are simply not interested
This writer has been a Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) landline and broadband Internet customer for over 10 years now. For the past few years, I have been living in a village called Parkala, which is a hop, skip and jump away from the educational, medical and financial hub of Manipal, close to the temple town of Udupi in coastal Karnataka.
As a typical Internet addict—and with no TV connection (cable or otherwise) whatsoever—most of my waking hours are spent browsing the net. This is also my main link with the world and my extended family and friends. I read major newspapers and online news portals, some on a daily basis and others occasionally whenever a link from Facebook or Twitter lead to the stories; my online viewing was mainly the garrulous Arnab Goswami, until a few months back when he became unbearable for my family who, in turn, threatened me with dire consequences if peace in the house was disturbed!
And throughout all this, bearing the pathetic service from BSNL, the government’s communications provider.
My troubles with BSNL are ancient, almost ever since I took the monopoly service. I had a long litany of complaints, relating mainly to the Internet connection and, occasionally to landline disruption. I have also seen the pathetic state of BSNL exchanges where, I am told, cannibalisation of equipment was a frequent occurrence. If there was a problem in one exchange and the complaints became intolerable, the ‘card’ from the exchange was swapped with a functional one from another exchange.
Often, copper wires were the culprits, the weather being blamed by the linemen, who had to face the brunt of subscribers’ ire. In my locality, overloaded trucks used to frequently bring down the phone wires.
Of course, on several occasions, it was the ‘Chinese-made’ ‘card’ problem at the exchange itself. But no one was willing to accept it officially. Many times, the relations between the linemen and the district sub-divisional officers (telecom), or SDOTs, whom I had to contact in exasperation, were strained. One young SDOT told me: “We cannot force the linemen to respond immediately; because they will immediately complain against us for caste discrimination.” It is another matter that the linemen used to frequently grumble that the SDOTs put pressure on them unnecessarily. There was this claim of perennial shortage of staff as well.
If it was the shortage of staff on one side, it was also the availability of spare ‘cards’, cables and other equipment. If a lineman told the SDOT that the cable needed to be replaced, the process would be caught in bureaucratic tangles.
And, sometimes, they used to blame the modem also! Once, I took it to the deputy general manager’s office for testing; the person there did not even see this modem brand and said it was not functional. The dealer, from whom I had purchased, tested it and said it was OK. Mysteriously, the next day, the Internet connection was back to normal.
On another occasion, I took the modem to the exchange and they said it was perfectly fine and blamed the Chinese ‘card’. The new SDOT came once to my house and promised to come again and do a comprehensive check. He did not. This was about two-three months ago. To cut the story short, my BSNL broadband Internet connection is on, more as an exception than a rule!
Thus, I started looking for an alternative service-provider. I looked at Google Guru and short-listed two: Airtel and Tata DoCoMo, who have a presence in the area.
I contacted Airtel first through the call centre number given on their website. After all, the sweet talk, right from their offices in Delhi to their branch office in Manipal, I was given an answer: Sorry, there is no connection available in your area. Mind you, my house is just 3km away from their branch office! I also happened to speak to an Airtel executive, who told me that the local manager was not interested in expanding the services and they lost many consumers.
A couple of months ago, I saw Tata DoCoMo’s service at a local three-star hotel, where, thanks to the owner, I was given access to the Internet in the manager’s office. The speeds were good—compared to BSNL’s service—and I was impressed. But not as satisfactory as the service I had in Hyderabad in 2011-12, where I used to pay just about Rs1,000 per month for a 10MbPS connection and that, too, with the rare breakdowns.
So I looked up Tata DoCoMo’s website and called them. After three-four phone calls, I was told that they only provide service in apartment buildings, where at least 80% residents agree to subscribe. Besides, they averred, I live in an area where there did not have any lines!
Few days back, on 5 June 2015, I put out a series of tweets regarding my grouse with BSNL (they did not respond) and how villages and small towns (R-urban) are way beyond the radars of these big companies (and not only telecom service-providers, but by almost all major FMCG companies), who treat us villagers as guinea pigs and dump third-rate goods and services on us.
Responses from the telco giants on Twitter were immediate, followed by phone calls. Yet, I bet my favourite mysorepak (a very popular sweet) that I will not get a connection from either Airtel or Tata DoCoMo in a hurry. And, lo and behold! At the end of the day, I ended up saving a few dozen rupees!
“We don’t have a service there,” was the common thread among the two.
Meanwhile, I plan to attend the BSNL Telephone Adalat, which will be held in the third week of June 2015 but am keeping my fingers crossed. Even in the first week of June 2015, there was a ‘server issue’ at BSNL and services were affected all over Karnataka for four or five days.
Footnote: Dear Mr Narendra Modi: If you happen to read this piece, let me say this. I doubt if your idea of ‘Digital India’ will ever take off; with such disdain for consumers, it might be a tall order. I don’t think it will happen during your stewardship of this nation as its Pradhan Sewak.
(Shrikant N Shenoy has been a journalist since 1980, having worked in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Dubai. He launched a news portal and an online Konkani language channel from Manipal, Udupi, but ran out of money. In 2011, he successfully launched an English newspaper with five editions simultaneously on a shoe-string budget. He tweets as @udupinet