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Knowlarity‘s founder Ambarish Gupta had a nightmarish week, last week.

“On last Tuesday,” he told MediaNama, “we were finishing our day, and we started getting popups on our customer care line. A crazy number of popups. Our phones started buzzing. We came to know that a large number of our lines are down. We called up the telecom operators and came to know that there’s some technical glitch. We thought it would recover in 15-20 minutes, but it didn’t recover. 30 minutes passed, nothing happened. We started calling up senior people among the telecom operators. We’re a large customer for them. We came to know that our lines are barred.”

Knowlarity is a cloud telephony provider. Started in 2009 by Ambarish Gupta and Pallav Pandey, and backed by Sequoia Capital and Mayfield, it provides enterprise services to businesses that make it easier for them to handle customer needs. For example, taxi booking apps like Ola and Uber have a “click to call” feature, which allows users to connect with a call center via the application, or marketplace businesses like JustDial and Indiamart, which connect customers with merchants by bridging calls between them. Only one telecom operator in the Delhi circle blocked their lines. Knowlarity declined to name the operator.

“The DoT compliance cell, called Term Cell,” Gupta continued, “is responsible for compliance of licenses, which typically any cloud telephony company will have: AudioTex license, Telemarketing license and OSP (Other Service Provider) license. We were extra cautious about these things, so when we started out, we took all three licenses. The term cell had directed the telecom operator to bar our services. The first one (telecom operator) decided to bar our service immediately, while the rest sent us three day show cause notice.”

Knowlarity claims to service close to 12,000 businesses in India, and they did not react well. “It’s crazy, how it has hurt a large number of businesses. Very ad hoc, very irresponsible,” he said. “After some persuasion (with the Term Cell), we got the services from the telecom operator who had disconnected, resumed the next day. By that time our customers were screaming because this is their customer care number.”

But that wasn’t the end of it.

“It got reconnected, but that remained only for 16-18 hours. It got disconnected again the next day. They (Term Cell) wanted to come and audit our data center. They came at 1.30 or 2pm at our data center, and while they were doing the audit, by 2.30, our lines got disconnected again. Even the audits weren’t complete. This was unprecedented. We went and met the official who was directing this, and asked them what was wrong, about why they’re disconnecting without a notice. He said that the AudioTex license doesn’t cover call bridging.” Call bridging is when “a call comes and it gets forwarded. In cloud telephony, there is an incoming call (from a customer), and you make an outgoing call to an agent, and you bridge (connect) them.”

Understanding the AudioTex license

AudioTex is meant to be a service which allows customers to access stored voice services. The TRAI, in its consultation paper on VoiceMail, AudioTex and Unified Messaging, says that the phrase AudioTex should be replaced by the phrase “stored voice services”. Details from the consultation paper suggest that it is like an audio portal:

“(Audiotex Service is) either a passive or an interactive service which provides through appropriate access by standardised procedure for users of Audiotex service to communicate with databases via telecom network. A subscriber can retrieve the information at any time by interacting with the Audio Service Equipment by using the existing telephone line”….”Audiotex service involves the automatic answering of calls and the subsequent provision of audio information to the callers. Audiotex service can be either passive – where the caller simply listens to a fixed service format or can be interactive where the caller can choose various information by interacting with the database computer via telecom network. A subscriber can retrieve the information at any time by interacting with the main data base computer by using the existing telephone line. However, for any interaction with the computer DTMF telephone instrument is required. Information provided through audiotex computer has variety of fields such as financial information, entertainment, sports information, health information, travel information etc.”

In a Medium post Gupta says that the unnamed government official said that “call-bridging on a PRI is not covered in Audiotex (license). This is the basis of our product SuperReceptionist and solutions such as virtual numbers.”

How does Knowlarity’s SuperReceptionist work? 

Knowlarity’s SuperReceptionist service allows call forwarding (video) and click to call (video). In both instances, two separate calls are bridged together: in the first, a call from a customer to a number is forwarded to an agent, while in the latter, calls are made to the customer and the agent, and are bridged together. Think of how taxi services connects users with drivers, without disclosing the users number to a driver, or how business directory services like connect callers with merchants.

Are SuperReceptionist features allowed under the AudioTex license?

The problem for Knowlarity is that the AudioTex license explicitly disallows call bridging. Clause 30.6 of the Audiotex license (also see amendment) states:

30.6 Point to point conferencing and calling card facility shall not be provided by Voice Mail/Audiotex/ Unified Messaging Service licensees.

In addition to this, clause 22.1 states that if a company has services from more than one telecom service provider, the dial out facility will not be allowed.

In case Voice Mail/Audiotex/ Unified Messaging Services licensee takes resources for the operation of the services from more than one telecom service provider, the dial out facility will not be permitted. In case the resources are taken by the Voice Mail/Audiotex/ Unified Messaging Service licensee from only one service provider the dial out facility will be permissible.
However, for UMS licensee the dial out facility shall not be permitted.

Knowlarity has partnerships with multiple telecom operators. Apart from this, dialing out in a manner that bypasses STD/ISD traffic of a license telecom operator is not allowed, which Knowlarity says it doesn’t do.

30.7 Dial out facility shall not be used in whatsoever manner for any illegal by pass of STD/ISD traffic of any licenced access service providers. Voice Mail/Audiotex/ Unified Messaging Service licensee shall have to give undertaking in this regard.

Current Status

Knowlarity has received a stay order, applicable for 14 days, from the telecom disputes tribunal TDSAT. “We have a 14-days stay order. We will make our point as an industrywide problem.” Gupta contends that the existence of cloud telephony itself is in danger:

MediaNama’s Take

1. Knowlarity appears to be in violation of the AudioTex license terms, but the license is outdated. AudioTex doesn’t cover call forwarding and bridging, even though these are essential features of Knowlarity’s SuperReceptionist product. Knowlarity also appears to be in violation of the norm that if you partner with multiple telecom operators, you can’t do dial-outs. However, the company told us that they believe that license conditions prevent mixing of operators, and that it is a grey area. Preventing point to point connection is a matter of preventing a revenue loss for the telecom operators. However, hooking at the terms, there is no mention of mixing operators or revenue loss, and outgoing calls are explicitly barred, so Knowlarity is incorrect about this.

In defence, Gupta points towards the letter and the spirit of the license: “By letter, literally, these licenses are so old that many of the enterprise telephony companies should not exist, including Justdial and (all of) cloud telephony. You’ll find a lot of loopholes. However, as there are four constituents in this industry: regulator, policy maker, telecom operator and us. For these four stakeholders, the letter is important, but spirit is also important. The spirit was two things: security and revenue loss.” The company says that its processes don’t lead to a revenue loss. Instead they add to telecom operators revenues.

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2. The services should not have been shut down at a time when TRAI is taking another look at the license. One can’t fault the official for sticking with the letter of the law, but they also failed to prevent the violation, and allowed a company to build a base of, (it claims) as many as 12,000 customers. There are now third party rights involved. The timing of the shut-down, just days after the TRAI consultation came out, is worth noting. Krishnan, a company representative, believes, and we agree that “You (should) allow TRAI process to play out, and let them define what the actual final shape of AudioTex should be, and we’ll comply with it.”

3. According to Knowlarity, they didn’t get a 60 day notice for their rectifying their service. This is in violation of the licensing terms, which clearly state:

10.2 The LICENSOR may, without prejudice to any other remedy available for the breach of any conditions of LICENCE, by a written notice of 60 Calendar days issued to the LICENSEE at its registered office, terminate this LICENCE under any of the following circumstances:

IF THE LICENSEE: 10 a) fails to perform any obligation(s) under the LICENCE; b) fails to rectify, within the time prescribed, any defect as may be pointed out by the LICENSOR. c) goes into liquidation or ordered to be wound up. d) is recommended by TRAI for termination of LICENCE for non-compliance of the terms and conditions of the LICENCE.

According to Gupta, the official said that there is no license which allows cloud telephony as an industry. “We asked him for time, and some kind of notice to react to it, and he said no. I will not do that.”

4. And things need to change: Gupta says that every cloud telephony company, which uses call forwarding, has to have some way of receiving and making calls without a revenue loss for the telecom operators. “Indiamart, Sulekha, Zomato use this, and Ola and Uber use click to call, which use this feature. These licenses are from 1995, and 20 year old licenses, and you can’t get this covered fully. That is why TRAI is coming out with this consultation paper, to include new things like these call bridging solutions. There exists no license, which, one or a collection of licenses, which explicitly allows this kind of call bridging,” he told MediaNama. As indicated above, the AudioTex license explicitly disallows this kind of call bridging, and that needs to change. Terms need to be specified for allowing the legitimate business case that SuperReceptionist provides.

As Krishnan said “If not AudioTex, tell me which license. I’m happy to go and find that license if it is there. That’s why we knocked on the doors of AudioTex, OSP and Telemarketing.”