In a big blow to the cellular operators, the Delhi High Court has directed telecom service providers to compensate mobile phone users for call drops from January 1 this year. The companies, however, decided to move to the Supreme Court, which will hear the case.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued orders in October last year directing the service providers to compensate consumers with one rupee per dropped call, subject to a cap of three dropped calls per day. The service providers claim that they would have to pay $8.2 billion if the order is implemented.
Aggrieved by the TRAI's order, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India (AUTSPI), and 21 telecom operators filed a petition in the Delhi High Court claiming that it was impossible to provide a 100 percent all drop-free network, which was dismissed by the court after hearing the case for nearly two months.
A two-member bench comprising Chief Justice G Rohini and Justice Jayant Nath said that the court did not stay the October 16, 2015 notification issued by the regulator, and the telecom companies were bound to comply with Section 16 of the Telecom Consumers Protection Regulations 2012. "TRAI is at liberty to take necessary steps in accordance with law for compliance of the same," the bench said.
"There is no dispute about the regulator's power to make regulation under section 36 on the Act. The impugned regulation has been made in exercise of the power conferred under the Act keeping in mind the paramount interest of the consumers", the bench said in its 39-page verdict, and observed that the penalty was only for three calls per day per consumer.
TRAI, which has donned the role of a watchdog and protecting consumers' interests, conducted Independent Drive Tests (IDT) by independent agencies in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Pune, Surat, and Bhubhaneswar twice in the last six months to look into the quality of services provided by the telecom companies and found that they were not up to the mark.
The number of mobile subscribers in the country is more than 400 million, but due to non-availability of adequate spectrum, poor infrastructure, and lack of investments to strengthen the network by these companies, call drops and breakdown in broadband services are common features, causing concern for consumers.
When the matter was raised in Parliament, Indian Minister for Communication and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said that change of frequencies of access spectrum, shift in usage pattern, and shortage of towers contributed to call drops.
However, the minister told Parliament in December that 29,000 new telecom towers were installed by private telecom operators across the country after the government took strong exception to the problem of call drops.
"The government is constantly monitoring the call drop situation and regularly asking the telecom operators to take corrective steps to improve it," the minister added.
According to COAI Director General Rajan S Mathews, the right approach to the issue would be to address the lack of cell sites, which in turn would help boost network capacities and improve the quality of services. "The government has allowed erection of towers in many of its sites in Delhi where the problem is minimal and the states should follow suit," he said.
There are several challenges faced by operators in installation and continued operations of mobile infrastructure such as difficulties in getting clearance for installing sites, power supply issues, fibre cuts due to other infrastructure projects, and non-renewal of lease due to reasons such as EMF-related misconceptions.
"These operational challenges coexist in an environment of shortage of spectrum at a time when data traffic growth is surging and is only adding to the woes of the industry, and more importantly, the customers," he added.