Last week, Airtel, the country’s second-ranked operator by revenue, shot off a letter to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, saying that it has cut the ringing time for outgoing calls on a rival network to 25 seconds from 45.
This was a tit-for-tat move after its bitter rival Jio did the same. Airtel said it had to take this step as despite its repeated requests, Trai had neither directed Jio to restore the timer to its original duration of 45 seconds nor issued a direction to operators to set the timer to 30 seconds as proposed by most operators.
To be sure, Trai has already floated a consultation paper on the matter and will also hold an open house discussion with stakeholders on 17 October with an aim to resolve this impasse. Trai also seeks to find out whether customers need to be offered options to change or modify the duration of ringing time particularly for them.
But is the ringer time even important? It is. Two reasons.
If these ringing timers are set differently by different network operators, the chances of answering the call by user of one network would be different from the user of another network as one party would get more time to answer the call than the other party.
The second reason is money.
Every call that lands on a mobile network fetches it money. The interconnect usage charge or IUC is levied by mobile networks handling incoming calls from rival networks, and is a source of revenue for telcos such as Airtel and Vodafone Idea who enjoy more incoming traffic than outgoing. At present, the IUC is at 6 paise a minute.
Interestingly, Jio, which reduced its outgoing call ringer time to 25 seconds, has more outgoing traffic than incoming. Jio’s outgoing traffic is 64% of its total voice traffic, as of June end.
Airtel has alleged that by reducing its outgoing call ringing time, the change in pattern results in a missed call, and forces the call receiver on the rival network to dial back and, hence, create incoming call traffic for Jio.
Jio, however, has argued that globally, most operators have an average ringing time of only 15-20 seconds, and 25 seconds ringing time on Jio network is in line with global practice.
Now Airtel has also cut the ringer time to 25 seconds. Vodafone Idea too has done this in a few circles.
This behaviour, however, is a race to the bottom.
And Trai, in its consultation paper floated on 16 September, probably saw this retaliation coming even before Airtel conveyed this in its letter to the regulator dated 28 September.
“The absence of any guiding principle or specific values may lead to a situation where reduction of the duration of ringing by one telecom service provider for its certain advantages may cause reactions by the other service providers in response to it by further reducing the values to even more lower levels and thereby causing chain reaction. It is apprehended that if such chain reaction or race among service providers happens to set lower and lower values of timers (it) will severely impact the interests of the customers," Trai had said.
“In case of emergence of such situations, it would be difficult to arrest the fall of value below a critical point as there will not be any reference value or range of values," the regulator had said.
It is important to note that the timer for domestic calls is not regulated by any authority in India. Operators have the freedom to choose the timers.
Jio has gone a step ahead and also said that there is no need for any regulatory intervention in this matter.
“In case Trai still decides to fix a value for the alert timer, it should be done only post a detailed study by a technical committee comprising experts from department of telecommunications and Telecommunication Engineering Centre," Jio said in its comments on the consultation paper floated by Trai.
There is no logic of keeping these limits on the higher side as mobile handsets are usually kept close to the user, Jio has said, adding that the optimum value of this timer is 20-25 seconds.
Airtel wants this ringer time set at 40 seconds. Vodafone Idea says the minimum ringing timer should be retained at 30 seconds.
“We strongly recommend a minimum value of 30 seconds for ringing timer at terminating side, to be uniformly applied by all operators for mobile networks which will ensure high call success in first attempt and help improve customer satisfaction," Vodafone Idea has told Trai.
The ringing time also impacts network efficiency. The maximum time allowed to answer the call takes on more importance as the alerting phase also engages scarce radio spectrum resources. Ringing for a long time, when a user is unlikely to accept the phone call, would led to non-optimal utilization of resources.
The reverse also has implications. Configuring duration of ringing time on lower side might save resources but on the other hand it may cause concerns related to network performance, if duration is much lower than the typical time one takes to answer the call.
The best scenario hence is for operators to sit across the table and figure this out. Else, this will be one more item on what is anyway a long list of disputes between hostile competitors. The biggest victim of this: the hapless consumer.