An average Indian consumed 11 GB of data a month in 2017 and mobile data usage grew by 144 percent last year. However, consumers in India have not received the quality of service or experience from broadband providers that they seek.
Speaking at an event called Empowering India Digitally – Enhancing Broadband Quality & Enabling Consumer Choice in the capital, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) chairman, RS Sharma, and Telecom secretary, Aruna Sundararajan, admitted to the lapses in addressing the most pressing grievances of broadband users.
1. ‘Asymmetry Between Broadband Provider and Consumer is Huge’
This comment by telecom secretary, Aruna Sundararajan, came in the context of quality concerns regarding broadband services in the country. Be it call drops, rural connectivity, billing issues or network problems, India’s 500 million strong internet and 1.13 billion mobile user base has bristled with dissatisfaction over quality of service.
We at Department of Telecom have received 44 million complaints from consumers last year. We have noticed a lot of repeat complains from rural consumers.Aruna Sundararajan, Telecom Secretary
TRAI chairman RS Sharma added that the regulatory body had recommended the maintenance of a minimum data speed by service providers. That, however, has not happened.
2. Transparency and Quality Assurance are a Must
Telecom authorities agreed that we need clear legally enshrined consumer rights in the telecom services sector.
“In all our services, whether broadband or any other, quality assurance, appropriate disclosures and transparency are an extremely important component of every service.” said Sharma, adding that “broadband has become such a common word today that people are talking of it as a fundamental right.”
Sundararajan lent her support to a strong consumer voice in the telecom sector, especially with regards to broadband, stating that “like strong regulators, we need a strong consumer movement and activism”. In this regard she said that “ a separate ombudsman for the telecom sector” will soon be appointed.
It will consist of a three-layer grievance redressal mechanism including an appellate authority layer. The telecom sector needs to open doors for more disruptive innovations, along with strengthening consumer protection and rights.
3. Need to invest in Digital more than Physical Infrastructure
A key highlight of the discussion on broadband quality was Sundararajan’s point on the need to boost digital infrastructure in India. India still has about 700 million people who are not connected to the internet.
She contended that physical infrastructure is visible and hence gets more funding. “For every rupee spent on the telecom sector, 50p comes back to the government which is spent on physical infrastructure,” she said, adding that “physical infrastructure can wait, digital infrastructure should be the priority,” she said.
Elaborating her point to The Quint, the top official said that physical infrastructure like transport, logistics and hospitals have their own challenges. “In healthcare for example, it is not possible to build thousands of hospitals, especially with a skewed ratio of doctors in the country. Which is why, new digital highways can make remote access to doctors possible.”
4. ‘Need for more Disruptive Innovations’
“The telecom sector needs to open doors for more disruptive innovations, along with strengthening consumer protection and rights,” Sundararajan said.
The top telecom officials and other stakeholders at the event agreed that more competition through proper regulations have to be encouraged. Stating that there is no other sector in India where tariffs have been brought down by 93 percent, the telecom secretary spoke about the need to ensure an environment that encourages greater investment.
“India needs an Open Sky Policy and new technologies by promoting competition to ensure that players come up with solutions to provide quality telecom services for consumers.” RS Sharma added.
5. A Consumer Broadband Label
A key initiative at the event was the advocacy for consumer broadband labels containing mandatory disclosure of information regarding the service. Just like energy efficiency labels on consumer electronics like refrigerators and air-conditioners, and nutrition labels on food packages, a standardised label disclosing speed, data and pricing would increase transparency and accountability.
Consumer Broadband Labels, proposed by CUTS International, that advocates for creating a standard information disclosure mechanism would also empower consumer choice.
Describing the proposal as an “extremely attractive idea”, top regulator RS Sharma said that advertisements on television have claimed strong network and fast downloads in remote areas like the mountains, something that has not always happened. “Unless you can guarantee a minimum download speed you cannot advertise like that,” he added.