When broadband services were introduced in India in 2003, several consumers were happy that they would now not have to endlessly wait for a graphics-heavy Web page to open while accessing the Internet on a dial-up phone connection. Or take as much as 20 minutes to download a two- minute audio clip.
That expectation soon turned to disappointment as netizens discovered that their experience on the broadband connections that claimed to deliver the Internet to them at speeds starting at 256 kilobits per second, or kbps, were just a little better than dial-up phone access. They often had to make do with speeds that were a fraction of the connection speeds promised by Internet service providers (ISPs).
All these irked customers will soon have official data on the levels of service provided to them. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has started collecting traffic and consumer information from 11 large ISPs in the country as part of the enforcement of its broadband guidelines issued last year.
The data on bandwidth and network congestion in the broadband industry will be included in its quarterly report on the telecom industry performance for the January-March period, to be released later this month, says M.C. Chaube, Trai’s adviser in charge of supervising service quality in voice, Internet and broadcast communications. In its quality guidelines for ISPs, the regulator had said that such providers need to deliver at least 80% of the promised speed to consumers.
Despite this, consumer experience has been poor in most big cities. “I am more or less used to getting around 30% (of the promised speed),” says V. Satish, a software engineer in Bangalore who has a 256kbps connection from state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) for eight months now. Satish, thanks to his technical background, is one of the few customers who keeps tabs on the bandwidth he gets on his connection.
The problem isn’t limited to BSNL or low-bandwidth customers. Vinu Thomas, who works for a Web services firm in the same city and has a connection from Bharti Airtel, had similar tales to tell. “My work involves a lot of server-monitoring. For this, I need an assured bandwidth supply,” says Thomas. Though his connection is meant to deliver 2 megabits per second, he says he has to live with 500-1,000kbps most of the time.
More than half the complaints on broadband services received at National Consumer Helpline (NCH), a non-governmental organization that runs a toll-free consumer grievance recording and forwarding service, relate to speed, says its coordinator, S.K. Virmani.
None of the ISPs, including Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd, Bharti Airtel Ltd, BSNL and Sify, responded to Mint’s requests for comment.
Industry experts say, with a rising subscriber base and the need to keep prices low, bandwidth was being shared between too many consumers. “Strict enforcement of the 80% rule will either lead them to increase prices or impose new constraints such as quotas,” says Alok Shende, head of technology practice at consultant Frost & Sullivan’s India offices. Rapidly declining bandwidth prices may help ease pressure on ISPs, he said.
“Trai has the power, if it finds quality levels to be extremely low, to recommend to the government to issue show-cause notices to the service providers on why their licences may not be cancelled for not maintaining the quality standards imposed by Trai,” NCH’s Virmani said.