Regulators

COAI vs. TRAI: Is incumbents' wrath justified?

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When an industry organisation goes out on a limb to hit out against one of its own members, it raises questions. When the industry body is a powerful one like Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI), it should raise eyebrows all round.

In a rare instance, COAI, an apex body representing Indian and global telecom companies providing telecoms-related converged services (voice, broadband, VAS, content, etc) in the country, went public with its grievances against Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) alleging the regulator’s actions (rather proposed ones) were biased against incumbent players.

What COAI meant is that a discussion paper of  TRAI, which has a possibility of forming basis of a regulation in future, is designed to favour new players in the telecoms convergence arena (read Reliance JIO).

Oh boy! This industry body-regulator face-off  is not only juicy but is a curious one on many counts too.

First, it’s rare for an industry organisation comprising companies with  competing business interests to go public with a view that hits out against one of its own members.

Second, the under-current of panic (or is it arrogance?) amongst existing established telcos at the arrival of  a  newcomer may indicate to lack of self-confidence though it must be admitted that the cash-rich new kid on the block has the potential of starting a pricing bloodbath that can turn the bottomlines of existing players scarlet.

Third and last, going public accusing the regulator of bias and appealing to the government to intervene may not be the correct way to address the issue of bias, if at all it exists. Simply because getting the government involved as a third umpire could be slippery slope.

So, why is COAI hitting out at TRAI and insinuating that the regulator’s discussion papers on inter-connects and related issues are drafted to benefit Reliance JIO, which has publicly stated has invested about Rs. Rs. 1,34,000 crore so far in the project?

COAI’s allegations revolve around  the way  telecoms business is done via inter-connections (where a service provider lets its customer hook on to another network in the absence of its own infrastructure in an area), the charges levied therein and the fact that certain aspects of the business is being tried to be removed to ease the entry path of newcomer Reliance JIO. The latter has  claimed to have 15 lakh customers in a test/trial phase with over 50 per cent call drops in the absence of other telcos refusing to interconnect despite the fact Reliance JIO’s network is quite widespread in the country.

An industry and trade organisation normally settles differences and conflicting interests of members (that is bound to exist and should be allowed to flourish in the true spirit of transparency and democracy)  beyond the pale of public glare as a divided house is not taken as seriously  by  target audience.

But by washing part of the dirty linen in public via the executive office, COAI may end up undermining its own credibility as an organisation representing the telecoms sector in India.

Thus, even if there are differences of opinion (and business interest) within COAI, the dissenting note(s), if there were any, also should have been played  out so transparency was maintained.

This brings us to incumbents’ sense of entitlement.

Existing telcos (and many other players in other businesses too), all claiming to have subscriber bases in millions in the world’s largest market in terms of numbers, have often cried foul at the arrival of a disruptive newcomer or technology saying in the interest of a level playing field the new entities should also be regulated and restricted.

Reliance JIO could turn out to be as ruthless and apathetic to customer satisfaction as some other existing players in the future, but that’s no reason to create more hurdles in its path or object to its test services.

One wonders where was the level playing field when Indian telecom customers, plagued by indifferent implementation of consumer protection laws and falling quality of services, turned towards cheaper and newer technologies to communicate? And when it became apparent to incumbents that the new techs were more efficient (for example, OTT services, including Skype, WhatsApp, etc), again the bogey of level-playing field was raised to seek regulatory interventions.

A status quo is the best scenario for existing players all over the globe; and especially so in India where any change or possibility of  betterment of consumer satisfaction is resisted more efficiently than providing a service. The recent Delhi taxi and auto-rickshaw unions stir against cab aggregators like Ola and Uber is a great case in point of the sense of entitlement that existing players in business and politics want to have in India; irrespective of (pathetic) quality of services and low customer satisfaction.

Though Reliance JIO is capable of  taking care of  its interests in all possible ways, as is evident in the letter it sent out to Telecoms Secretary JS Deepak earlier this month rebutting COAI’s allegations point-by-point,  the double-standards of existing telcos is not only confounding but also goes against the grain of level-playing field that COAI and its members have flaunted so often in the past.

(The author is Consulting Editor of Indiantelevision.com)

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