New Delhi: The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) plans to introduce a ranking system for telecom operators to tackle the problem of dropped calls, telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan said in an interview. Under the plan, customers will be able to rate their network provider and name-and-shame them for poor service, Sundararajan said, adding that the current level of quality of service cannot be allowed and the government plans to send a strong signal to telcos to clean up their act.

The government, she said, expects the sector to stabilize after the ongoing mergers and consolidations in the industry is completed over the coming three months. Edited excerpts:

What is the government doing to curb dropped calls?

We want to signal a high level of concern to the players. I cannot say at this point of time that we have done any sort of satisfactory job on the quality of service. We now want to keep up sustained pressure on telcos and they have to be accountable.

This is not a sporadic thing. It is happening frequently and everywhere. They need to wake up. Their first duty is towards the customer. Before they acquire any new customer, they have to ensure the existing customer is serviced to some reliable degree. In the first meeting, we are going to give them a very clear signal and after that we are going to put them on watch and monitor it strictly.

Can DoT penalize telcos?

Quality of service is the domain of the regulator. DoT would not like to rush in there. But at the same time, the government has to be responsive to the needs of the customer. We are also trying to see whether we can introduce a ranking by consumers and look at the grievance we are getting from the consumer and find a way of feeding that to the telcos.

In the new policy—this is one of the things—can we start having some measure of ranking so that then these people (telcos) will not be able to get away with saying that we have done whatever can be done.

What would be the parameters for such a ranking?

There is a group working on that. One will be a set of objective parameters. But we also want customers to rank their service provider. And then kind of ‘name and shame’ them. We need to do that because all these lovely advertisements are fine, but at the end of the day if your service is so poor, then how does that help?

If there are a few players in the sector and service quality is equally bad, then who does a customer switch to?

(Norms by Trai on) a fourfold increase in the penalty is already kicking in. It does not mean the government or regulator cannot increase the penalty.

Because this is not a sustainable situation. This kind of quality of service cannot be allowed.

The Telecom Commission approved some relief measures for the sector recently; are you still getting grievances from the industry?

No, not yet. I think the big focus now is on consolidation. With the spectrum caps being removed, a big constraint has been removed. So now, the next three months will be focussed on completing the mergers and consolidations.

How does the sector look right now? Do you see telcos’ profitability going up in a year or two, or is that still some time away?

I definitely see that post the second quarter (July-September), I expect there will be better monetization and stability will come back to the sector. Because, even the new entrant must be trying to garner the maximum number of people. But once that plateaus off, they will also go back to the rest of the market.

Revenue is a big concern. There was no auction in 2017. At the regulator’s open house, telcos said the timing may not be right for an auction. How does the government look at that picture?

This department is not primarily a revenue earner; it is intended to provide telecom services. Right now, quality of service is the main concern for us and also to ensure that there is proliferation of internet. This is the key concern and revenue is the secondary concern.

Will DoT push for a spectrum auction this year?

DoT does not have any views at this point of time. The regulator has to tell us what is the appetite and what is the need for spectrum. Just because we have a resource, does not mean we will push it on the market.

After relaxing spectrum caps, it looks like the government is easing it out for the telcos to participate in the auction? Do you expect aggressive participation?

We have to see. Post consolidation, we need to see what the spectrum holding pattern looks like, and who will need more spectrum where.

It may not be that they all have adequate spectrum in all bands. The picture will be clear only after mergers are completed.

In another six months, is it unlikely that any kind of spectrum auction talk would happen?

Looks like that, going by the current indication.

There are a lot of recommendations by Trai pending with the DoT...

Trai has given us a lot of recommendations on cloud, net neutrality, ease of doing business, etc. We are trying to fast track the consideration of those recommendations by the Telecom Commission. We have set up a special dispensation to look at those recommendations.

Will you take a decision on these recommendations by 31 March?

That is our hope.

The government has talked about a new telecom policy. What is the status of the working groups that were set up?

We just had a discussion with the working groups. Their first draft is almost there. In the meantime, Trai had its first open house (on new telecom policy) yesterday, the second open house will happen on 24 January. By the end of this month, we should have some kind of first draft. Then we will put it up (for public consultation).

The centre has completed the first phase of BharatNet. The second phase is different as it involves private players, states...

We have already started work on the second phase. BSNL has started its work. Some states have started too. We want to make sure all vendors and contracting is finished by 1 April. Second, the WiFi tender—which we expect will be the big game-changer because we are targeting 5 lakh WiFi hotspots.

We expect that by the first week of March, we will actually be able to complete the procurement so that by 1 April, the rollout can start.

Our target is that by 1 December, we should have these 5 lakh hotspots done. Right now, we have 38,000 WiFi hotspots, so it will be a big jump.

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