Messaging power abuse by mobile operators

Under severe pressure arising from the tariff war, many mobile operators are trying to push more and more value-added services (VASs) by using their so-called 'power' gained from a huge subscriber base

Recently, I found out many mobile operators are sending a communication to their subscribers for using value added services (VASs), like short message service (SMS), multi-media message service (MMS), mobile instant messaging (MIM) ringtones, caller tunes, music, games and last but not least, general packet radio service or GPRS.

The 'pay-per-call' and 'pay-per-second' initiative by Tata Teleservices has forced almost all players, including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Essar, Reliance Communications (RCom) and Idea Cellular, to join the tariff war. The aggressive launch and lower tariff plans from new entrants are not only snatching customers but are also hurting the top and bottom line of incumbent mobile service providers (MSPs). On one hand the MSPs are losing out on the call services front with decline in average revenues per user (ARPU) and minutes of usage (MOU), on the other hand, there is a big scope to earn good money through VAS.
According to the global research firm Gartner the Indian telecom sector will maintain its growth trajectory and is expected to generate revenues of more than $30 billion by 2013. Voice tariffs will continue to fall in the future as new operators make their way into the industry and increase competition. Although the major proportion of revenue for telecom players stems from voice services, data services will witness fast growth in the future, Gartner said.

Another research firm, RNCOS, said it expects Indian MSP's revenues from mobile VAS to reach over Rs16,500 crore in 2010 from Rs1,675 crore in 2009, driven by the launch of 3G services and mobile number portability (MNP).
This is one of the reasons why almost all incumbent MSPs are trying very hard to push more and more VASs. But in that process, a number of complaints are emerging against MSPs and the method used by them for pushing VASs. Accordingly, many users feel, their MSP is using their subscriber base as a power to abuse an average user. For example, Bharti Airtel, the country's largest telecom operator has been trying hard to 'push' more and more VASs and in the process is depleting money, without the consent and knowledge of the subscriber.
Here is one complaint from one of our readers, who says that he had kept his Airtel pre-paid connection only for use in emergencies and hardly uses it. However from time to time he is being subscribed automatically to a number of VASs and the service gets deactivated only when he complains.

Another reader said, he had been having a long interaction with Airtel on behalf of his father who is 76 years old. Over the past eight weeks, he (the father) has been 'subscribed to' a number of VASs (matrimonial, bikinirichalert, cricket score, etc) which Airtel claims is based on a 'request from the subscriber'. SMS-driven and much publicised STOP and START services of Airtel are not easy to use or reliable. The most troublesome part is that even if the system tells you that you are not subscribed to any service, you will still lose money from VASs. Either the company does not have a good handle on such systems or has deliberately designed them to make it complex for users, to increase revenue, the reader added.

Moneylife came across many such complaints against Airtel and decided to take up the matter with the concerned officials. Although, they still have not replied to my e-mail, I got a call from someone claiming to be from customer services and here is what he said, "We are looking into the matter. Meanwhile we have reverted the amount deducted from your account.”

When I asked, why someone like Airtel (the largest MSP in India) is pushing hard these kind of VASs?, I got a reply that Airtel has given the access to their subscriber numbers to VAS providers like Mauj, who in turn are sending such messages, but Airtel is “seriously” looking into the matter.

For addressing the concerns of the mobile industry while protecting the interests of consumers with regard to explicit consent and for preventing accidental subscription to VAS, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued a direction in April. According to it, the MSP has to provide the subscribers an option to use a procedure of double confirmation instead of the single one. For example, if a subscriber wants to copy a hello tune, then he should press * (star) and '9', instead of just *, as is the practice.

TRAI has also made it mandatory for all MSPs to intimate the subscriber, at least three days before the due date of renewal of a subscribed VAS, the due date for renewal, the charges for renewal and the toll-free telephone number for un-subscribing of such VASs. I have yet to come across a single mobile user who has received such communication from his/her MSP.

Another question is, when a subscriber had registered his/her mobile number in the National Do Not Call (NDNC) registry, how can the MSP send any commercial communication, prohibited by the registry, to even their own subscribers? Again, how can the MSP share the subscriber number with their VAS vendors? This not only puts a question mark over the power of authorities but also highlights the plight of end-users. Is there any solution for this mess?
-Yogesh Sapkale [email protected]

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