(Updated below with more screenshots)

Telemarketers and bulk SMS companies have begun sending promotional messages as transactional messages, in direct violation of the TRAI’s SMS Spam regulations MediaNama has learned from sources. The SMS Spam regulations from the TRAI differentiate between transaction messages – those sent by a company to its customers related to either alerts or services they’ve subscribed to – and promotional messages which are essentially commercial communications.

For promotional messages, telemarketers have to pay an additional Rs 0.05 per SMS, and this difference in pricing appears to be pushing bulk SMS organizations to offer SMS marketing firms the opportunity to advertise on the transactional pipe at a lower cost, thereby violating the TRAI regulations. The SMS’ being sent on the transactional pipe are being priced at around 3.5 paise per SMS, while if they were sent on the promotional pipe, they would cost much more.

Below is a photo of one such message we received. We have other screenshots of such messages as well.

Now, as per TRAI guidelines, promotional messages have to be according to the following guidelines:

“V. For sending the promotional messages, the telemarketers shall use alphanumeric identifier in the format XY-RZZZZZ where X stands for code allotted to Access provider, Y stands for service area, as specified by the Authority from time to time and R being any digit from 0 to 7, where 0 indicate that the SMS is commercial communication but does not belong to any preference specified under serial number III, 1-7 indicates the preference specified under serial number III and ZZZZZ indicates five digit unique identification code allotted to telemarketer by the Access Provider. As and when additional preferences are specified by the Authority, the same will be assigned number 8 onwards for ‘R’.”

This means that the above message should have carried category identification information after “LM-” and be followed by a numeric code, which identifies the telemarketer.

On the other hand, for transactional messages, the rules are as follows:

“The second party shall use alpha+numeric identifier for sending Transactional SMS in the format having nine alpha numeric characters, first alpha numeric character being code of Access provider and the second alpha numeric character being code of service area, as provided under the direction dated 10th December, 2008 issued by TRAI. The third alpha numeric character will be dash(+) and the last six characters will be the identifier of the company or organization sending transactional SMS (example XY+ZZZZZZ, where X stands for code allotted to Access provider, Y stands for service area, and ZZZZZZ indicates six alphabets for company or organization sending transactional SMS).”

The above promotional message conforms to the transactional messaging guidelines, but is a promotional message.

Our Take

This is yet another instance of poor enforcement of the TRAI’s SMS SPAM guidelines:  SMS spam persists, and I’m still getting spam messages on some days. If SMS Spam identification guidelines aren’t followed, then there might be issues in filing complaints against potential SMS Spammers, and the TRAI needs to look into this – how do customers complain about promotional messages being sent on a transactional pipe?

Secondly, the TRAI’s policy is responsible for the practice of sending promotional SMS through the transactional pipe, because the 5p charge on promotional SMS’ makes them unviable for some advertisers, and the bulk SMS companies. The TRAI needs to stay out of the pricing, and let that be determined by market forces. By instituting the 5p charge on promotional SMS’, they created artificial price disparity, and the situation where some companies looked to bypass the rules in order to service advertiser demand. This is an indication of desperation from those in the bulk SMS business – business has been hit so badly, that they’re looking at unethical means of pushing promotional messages. The problem here is that, much like the excesses before the TRAI SMS Spam regulations came into force, lack of self regulation will lead to stricter regulation. They’re shooting themselves in the foot, and taking the rest of the industry down with them.

Thirdly, I would find it hard to believe that telecom operators are unaware of this practice – it is their pipe, and when it comes to enforcement against spam, the TRAI needs to also hold telecom operators accountable and fine them for violations as well. The way telecom operators have it right now – they maintain control over the MVAS space when it comes to content going through their pipe, and at the same time, pass the buck on to VAS companies. Either it should be a completely independent ecosystem, or a completely dependent one (with responsibility lying with the telco). You can’t have it both ways.

In the end, a policy is effective only if it is enforced.

Update

Sagar Bedmutha, Founder & CEO of SMS Blocker sends across many screenshots of SMS’ which appear to be promotional messages on the transaction pipe. A few of those that he sent: