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Too Much Disturbance

By the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai’s) admission, unsolicited calls and messages to mobile subscribers are a chronic problem. Despite the creation of a National Do Not Disturb (NDND) registry in 2010, the problem persists, as any irate mobile owner will confirm. According to Trai, some 1.4 million telephone numbers have been disconnected on this account; yet, the regulator said it had received two million complaints since then. This state of affairs prompted it to come up with a fresh set of draft rules in July this year.

These new rules are infinitely more stringent and have increased the telecom companies’ responsibilities to curb the menace exponentially. Under the new draft guidelines, telcos will be liable to stiff new penalty ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 5 million per violation. Telcos have also been asked to use blockchain technology to reduce pesky and unwanted commercial calls and messages and mandated subscriber consent to receive telemarketing messages. For this, they have been given six months to comply, which includes de-recognising handsets that do not support apps, enabling customers to choose calls and messages they wish to receive.

On paper, the new rules may look good. In practice, however, they are unlikely to benefit the consumer. In the immediate aftermath of the Trai draft, for instance, there has been no noticeable diminution in pesky calls and messages; indeed, spam callers appear to have upped their game with bot calls and other innovations. The principal problem is this: To work, the NDND registry requires telemarketers and related commercial services to register themselves with Trai.No prizes are needed to guess that not all telemarketers are so ethical as to comply.

So what can consumers who have registered their numbers with the NDND registry do? They can call a designated number and register their call via an Interactive Voice response (IVR) number after which Trai says it will inform the complainant of the action taken in seven days. Even if this unconscionably long reaction time were discounted, the fact is that every subscriber receives multiple marketing messages a day and is unlikely to expend so much time logging every pesky call.

Trai appears to have recognised the weaknesses of this clunky process, but its solution has been to shift the onus to telcos to deploy back-end blockchain technology. Not surprisingly, the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI), which is the key representative body, has declared that introducing the Distributed Ledger Technology, which has not been implemented anywhere in the world, is near-impossible.

For one, the COAI reckons that installing this (untried) technology would cost between Rs 2 billion and Rs 4 billion costs that the debt-laden telecom industry can scarcely afford. Also, derecognising non-DND-enabled handsets is the last thing telcos want to do as subscriber bases begin to stagnate. For another, the six-month compliance deadline would be impossible to achieve; the COAI says a year to a year-and-a-half is a more realistic time-frame. There is the additional problem: Apple refuses to allow Trai’s DND app on its iPhones on grounds that it violates user privacy.

Thus, the new draft regulations are likely to heighten tension at a time when the government urgently needs to smooth the business environment for foreign investment in India. On the whole, it is difficult to say which party is being more disingenuous in this controversy: Trai, by pushing the onus on troubled telcos, or the telcos for remaining passive about pesky calls. The problem boils down to this: An NDND registry helps but consumers should have access to a one-touch solution to register unsolicited marketing calls and messages. The problem appears to ricochet between a regulator at the end of its tether and service providers floundering under debt and stagnant revenues, leaving the customer the eternal hapless victim. – Business Standard

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