By Sreejiraj Eluvangal
New Delhi:Indian cellphone service companies, chasing subscribers in a market that adds some six million customers every month, continued pummelling down tariffs, already the lowest in the world.
The latest round of cuts has a political angle to it. Former communications minister Dayanidhi Maran had set in motion a plan to get the public sector Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) to slash roaming charges by 3 June so that it coincides with the birthday of DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi, who happens to be Maran’s uncle.
But while the state-run firms’ bundling of free incoming calls while roaming was compensated by an increase in monthly rentals, CDMA operator Reliance Communications Ltd (RCL) followed suit by going one step ahead and launching multiple copycat schemes. Fellow CDMA operator Tata Teleservices Ltd (TTSL) pointed out that they had already introduced schemes with bundled free incoming during roaming two months ago.
Maran, as a parting shot at the time of his resignation, said he had been in an advanced stage of scrapping incoming charges during roaming completely. He had also said the operators had more or less consented to introduce “free roaming” in time for Karunanidhi’s birthday.
Nothing is free: CDMA operator Tata Teleservices Ltd points out that it had already introduced schemes with bundled free incoming during roaming two months ago.
However, apart from the increased rentals, the “free roaming” was also restricted to a particular number of minutes per month.
For example, while BSNL and MTNL have allowed their users to receive 300 minutes of free incoming calls, the monthly rental has gone up from Rs180 for a similar scheme called One India without free minutes to Rs550 for the scheme with free calls.
RCL, which had reduced incoming roaming charges to Re1 per minute without charging any rentals, introduced two schemes—one with a fixed charge of Rs390 and bundled free incoming calls of 200 minutes, and another one with a fixed charge of Rs990, bundled with free incoming calls of 900 minutes during roaming. Fellow CDMA operator TTSL pointed out that, under a two-month-old plan, they were already giving free incoming calls of 500 minutes at a monthly rental of Rs350.
“For heavy roaming users, especially on BSNL, the new scheme will result in savings as the incoming rates have gone from Rs1.75 to Re1 per minute. But some of the schemes are just re-arranging the tariffs,” said Sourabh Kaushal, industry manager for technology- and communication-related sectors at the consultant Frost & Sullilvan, India.
The companies themselves said the former minister’s concept of “free roaming”, including free incoming calls when the subscriber is outside his home network, is technically non-feasible.
“When the customer’s phone is registered in Patna and he comes to Delhi for a visit, all the calls that land up at Patna have to be carried to Delhi. This cost has to be recovered from someone,” pointed out R.S.P. Sinha, chairman and managing director, MTNL.
He added that the move is unlikely to have a major impact in the medium and long term. “When we reduced the call rates between Delhi and Mumbai to local rates, there was an increase of four to five times in the total voice traffic between the two places,” he said, adding that such an increase in roaming traffic is likely to offset the loss of revenue from tariff reduction.
Meanwhile, the new telecom minister, for whom the roaming reduction had become a challenge after his predecessor claimed he was on the verge of abolishing roaming before his unceremonious exit, claimed that complete abolition of incoming charges during roaming was never discussed.
“I have talked to the operators and they have said that no such proposal was discussed with them,” Andimuthu Raja, who took over from Maran as the IT and communications minister two weeks ago, said.
However, he added that he hoped the new tariff schemes are just a beginning and that private players will follow BSNl and MTNL’s example.