Telcos, TRAI spar over free services for low-income prepaid users

S Ronendra Singh New Delhi | Updated on April 09, 2020

COAI concerned that even the rich benefit; asks govt to subsidise from USO Fund

The telecom industry on Thursday conveyed to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) that it may not be able to provide extended validity and talk time benefits to “all pre-paid consumers” post April 17 unless the government compensates it adequately from out of the USO Fund.

This comes after TRAI wrote to the telcos on Tuesday asking about the measures taken by the operators for ensuring availability of recharge vouchers and payment options for pre-paid services.

Responding to TRAI’s letter, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) highlighted that even those who could afford prepaid services and access Internet without any incentives are benefiting from such initiatives.

“We cannot believe it is the intention of TRAI that such benefits should be indiscriminately provided to even those privileged ones who are well able to afford such services and need no incentives or provisions to avail of continued mobile services. This would amount to an unjustified subsidy to this larger class of customers at a steep loss to the industry,” Rajan S Mathews, Director-General, COAI, said in the letter to TRAI Secretary, SK Gupta. To ensure continuity of service to the citizens, who are at the bottom of the pyramid and are not in a position to recharge their prepaid services, the operators have provided extended validity for continuation of their services and talk time benefits to enable them to make essential calls, he said in the letter. BusinessLine has seen the letter.

“These are in line with the efforts and decisions of the government to ensure that such citizens can remain connected for essential needs. Even on a conservative basis, the value of such benefits is more than ₹600 crore,” Mathews said.

For instance, companies such as Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea had announced unrestricted incoming services till April 17 and ₹10 talk time for all low income users.

However, it was observed that Vodafone Idea was crediting ₹10 only on expiry of validity and those subscribers who have reached a zero balance but have not yet reached the validity expiry will also be denied the relief.

Therefore, TRAI had directed the operator to provide comments and take immediate steps to ensure that ‘all prepaid subscribers can enjoy uninterrupted services during the period of lockdown’.

Meanwhile, COAI letter said that the individual actions taken by the member operators were for serving the national interest in the given situation so that the underprivileged were not deprived of any communication facility in this time of need.

Mathews said that if TRAI and the government feels there is a need to provide further benefit to all the prepaid feature phone subscribers, then this should be a subsidy to the telecom sector like many other essential services.

This could be adequately compensated from the USO Fund where more than ₹51,500 crore is being lying unutilised as on March 31,” he added.

Published on April 09, 2020

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