Our goal is to address the quality of services issue immediately: Trai Chairman

By Ibrahim Ahmad & Krishna Mukherjee

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)’s call drops compensation order has not gone down well with the telecom service providers, as they claim that the ripple effect would be felt in the form of rise in mobile tariffs.

In an interview with Voice&Data, R S Sharma, Chairman, TRAI, talks about the order, and why improving the quality of telecom services is its topmost priority.

Voice&Data: Ever since you took over as TRAI Chairman, there has been a lot of action in telecom. So, what are your key priorities at this moment?

R S Sharma: Telecom, in India, is a very dynamic sector with a billion plus structure rapidly given the fast pace of technological innovations. It is no longer just a means to communicate. Consequently from the regulatory perspective we have to constantly and consistently upgrade ourselves just to be abreast of the current developments.

The Authority’s key priority given this scenario is to set in place systems that will automatically update the information availability for TRAI to be proactive in able to support the industry as well as to be in a position to propose ameliorative action based on actual data rather than be dependent on periodical reporting mechanisms.

Our immediate goal is to address the quality of services issues that we are witnessing and which are a cause of substantial consumer dissatisfaction. Mobile telecom is too integrated into our fellow citizens’ lives for us to be complacent about its quality.

Voice&Data: What are some of the ways to make the standards of quality of service more effective?

R S Sharma: There are three possible ways to address the quality of service issues.
If as a consumer, I am paying my subscription fees and generally adhering to my side of a contract, I expect the service provider also to fulfill its commitments. Therefore, the first way, from the consumer’s perspective, is to be compensated for the services that are not up to the mark. We have addressed the call drop problem recently, given this perspective.

From the perspective of a service provider, the quality of service issue can be seen from being able and allowed to provide the service in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.

Here we do know that there are issues not of the service providers’ creation that hamper the quality. Ability to establish mobile towers in appropriate locations; right of way issues; availability of spectrum; etc. there are several that have been pointed out. We are addressing these as well.

TRAI has pointed out to the Government the necessity of making available adequate spectrum for civilian use, recommending change in the policy regarding spectrum usage; allocating contiguous frequencies etc. We are also in the process of going out to the wider public and discussing issues like safety of mobile towers. Thus, TRAI is fully involved from this perspective.

Finally, is the regulator or licensor’s perspective, which is to monitor that the desired service quality as per license and various regulations of TRAI is actually delivered. In this regard we have an elaborate monitoring system consisting of drive tests; performance reports and independent audits. We have in place a system of imposing financial disincentives.
Over-all, we can say that all QoS issues are being addressed by TRAI.

Voice&Data: Call drop is an important issue today. But do you think Trai’s ‘compensation for call drops’ order will benefit the consumers as the telcos are contemplating to pass on the additional burden to the end users only in the form of rise in tariffs?

R S Sharma: Almost everything a regulator does will have some kind of financial implications, direct or indirect, for all stakeholders.
However, a regulator has a difficult job of balancing the interests of all stake-holders in the eco-system. Protection of consumer interests is also one of our functions – they too are stakeholders of the system!

Certainly, the call drop regulation will benefit the consumers. In our calculations, based on the actual call drops that are taking place and that are caused by the faults in the originating network, the net compensation payout will be less than 1% of the networks operators’ revenues.

Service providers can always bring down this payout by improvements in the network infrastructure and optimizing the network performance.

As I said earlier, we are trying to address some of the genuine problems faced by the service providers. We will support all their endeavors in whatever possible manner to improve QoS. It is our common goal.

Voice&Data: How do you see the whole net neutrality debate?

R S Sharma: Issues relating to net neutrality have already been very widely debated in this country and at all levels. We understand the concerns expressed by vast number of respondents to TRAI’s Consultation Paper. We too share their concerns.

However, TRAI’s consultation was not on net neutrality as such but on the issues highlighted by the telecom service providers about the adverse impact on their revenues/ profitability due to the Over-the-top (OTT) services that compete with their services while riding on their networks.

It certainly is possible to address the concerns expressed without actually impinging on the net neutrality principles.

Voice&Data: What’s your view on the need for consolidation in Indian telecom?

R S Sharma: Consolidation of operators in any industry is a natural process of growth. With the Indian telecom industry crossing the billion subscriber mark, further growth prospects for the more efficient operators will increasingly come from M&A opportunities.

The Authority welcomes such consolidation as it will reduce the fragmentation on the supply side, allow the efficient operators the scales that they need; improve utilization of the existing infrastructure while reduce in the long term the overall cost of new infrastructure.

Voice&Data: In your current job, what type of challenges do you face?

R S Sharma: Each job brings its own challenges. As Chairman of TRAI, the challenges that I face is to deal with the intricacies of two very diverse sectors that are regulated by TRAI, namely the telecom and broadcasting sectors.
While the telecom sector is structured with a well defined regulatory mechanism in place, the broadcasting sector has long way to go.

As you know, today there is no official count available of the number of local cable operators (LCOs), who are the first point of interaction for cable TV subscribers in India.

Similarly with the Digital Access coming in from January 1, 2016, issues like demand for high quality of cable services, spread of broadband internet through cable and similar other generational changes will be coming into this sector. This has to be effectively managed.

We would like to put in place modern digital monitoring/information system that will help us to pro-actively regulate.

Voice&Data: What type of support do you expect from the government?

R S Sharma: The Government has been very supportive of all our efforts. Development of the telecom and broadcasting sectors as modern and efficient sectors are integral to achieving to objectives of the Government’s Digital India goals.

Therefore, there is already a synergy between government efforts and those of the regulator, in so far as our objectives for these two sectors are concerned. We would, of course, like to contribute, as we have to a large extent, in the drawing up of the various implementation plans. We have to ensure that the regulatory regime develops hand in hand with the roll out of the policy regimes and physical infrastructure.

For example, for the implementation of the BharatNet project, TRAI will soon put forward its recommendations as to how we think we can implement the project, in a more efficient and cost effective manner.

Voice&Data: Which country’s regulatory model do you find an ideal one and why?

R S Sharma: The regulatory model of each country has to be specific to its own conditions. One can monitor and adopt the best practice but pointing out one regulatory model as better than other may not be fair.

The case in point may be the way in which TRAI has addressed the problem created by Unsolicited Commercial Calls in India. Not just have we set-up an extensive mechanism of registration of peoples choices through the ‘do-not-disturb’ registry we have curbed the menace to a large extent.

Other countries, including the developed ones, have largely been unable to resolve this and look at the Indian model with interest. Similarly, we keep abreast of what is happening in other countries – like the net-neutrality debate in US, and see to what extent we can adopt or adapt their solutions to our conditions.

Voice&Data: As you have a technology background, how do you see the entire buzz around 3G, 4G or 5G. What would be the ideal technology transition for the country?

R S Sharma: Regulators are expected to be technology neutral and so are we. Our responsibility is to create a competitive market with level playing field where choice of the technology would be left to the service providers and choice of service and prices are with the consumers.

Having said that, I prefer not to look at what you mentioned, as a technology transition. I would consider this as a case of transition of telecommunication market, forced by the shift in consumer demand, from a voice market to data market. 3G, 4G or 5G, all are data centric technologies.

Industry has to meet the demand of the consumers and the move is in that direction by adopting technologies which enable delivery of data at higher and higher speeds. We already have 3G in urban areas, 4G services are available in few cities and towns and some major launches are expected in near future. 5G is away till 2020.

Voice&Data: What type of relationship, do you think would be an ideal relationship between TRAI and DoT?

R S Sharma: Historically, the DoT has been the policy maker, the regulator, the licensor and was also the main telecom service provider in India. While some of these functions, have now been entrusted to other dedicated organizations – MTNL and BSNL are the service providers and TRAI the independent regulator.

Some vestigial activities continue to be conducted in DoT, sometimes our functions overlap. The optimal relationship would therefore require a clear delineation of the functions between TRAI and DoT so that consistent and cogent action is taken by both.

Voice&Data: What would be some of the key suggestions or message for the telecom operators in India?

R S Sharma: The telecom industry is truly the life-line of the country. Affordable telecom services has effectively reduced distance between people; it has given access to new business opportunities and to earn livelihood in ways not imagined a few years back; it today allows medical and educational services to reach people in all corners of the country; it has enabled the government to provide services at the doorsteps of its citizens in this vast country; it is making people’s life safe and secure by providing lifeline in emergency situations.

Given this important role this sector plays in the people’s lives, the telecom operators are truly an influential force. They must see their role in this perspective and must take on their responsibility fully. There are ample growth opportunities for the telecom industry; they must be innovative and reactive to the needs of the citizens at terms which are equitable. High quality service at affordable prices country is what I think should be the mantra for the industry.

Voice&Data: What is your vision of India telecom?

R S Sharma: We have a National Telecom Policy with a vision “To provide secure, reliable, affordable and high quality converged telecommunication services anytime, anywhere for an accelerated inclusive socio-economic development”. The Government, Regulator, Industry and all other stakeholders share this vision and work towards achieving the targets set.

As we move ahead, we shall raise our vision and set eyes on bigger targets. As the Telecom Regulator of the country, our ultimate vision is to see the Indian consumers among those privileged customers who have access to world class services at affordable prices, and served by a thriving industry.

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