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After over 10 million mobile complaints between January and March 2016, the Indian telecom regulator TRAI is considering creating an independent authority, or an ‘Office of Ombudsman’. Download the TRAI’s consultation paper on: Complaints/Grievance Redressal in the Telecom Sector (pdf). In addition, the DoT and TRAI together received more than 38,000 individual complaints from subscribers whose grievances were not resolved by their telecom providers since 2013.

Note that this consultation comes a time when telcos were accused of masking call drops with a workaround to make calls remain connected even when there is no or poor coverage; while the SC struck down TRAI’s suggestion of Re 1 for every call drop in May.

The questions posed in the consultation paper are below, and the submissions have to be sent to cacommentstrai@gmail.com by 18th August, 2016. Counter comments will be allowed till 26th of August, 2016.

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Although historical data of complaints received by telcos and the regulator denotes a rise in complaints, TRAI mentions that this could be credited to the rise number of subscribers over time. However, it points that the number of complaints referred to the appellate authority—a committee which addresses consumer disputes/complaints that weren’t resolved by a telco’s customer care—has not necessarily depicted an increase.

“What is notable is the variation amongst the TSPs when it comes to the number of appeals filed as compared to the numbers of complaints registered. Such a disparity points out to the fact that the TSPs have implemented and are operating the complaint/ grievance redressal mechanism in their own ways, including differently defining what an appeal is and therefore what gets referred to the Appellate Authority.”

Two-tier system for complaints: Existing regulations mandate a 2-tier complaint redressal system wherein each telco has a customer care center in each of its licensed service area. If a dispute cannot be addressed or resolved by the centre, or if a customer isn’t satisfied with the redressal, it is then forwarded to an Appellate Authority, wherein a two member committee will look into the complaint. If it is still not resolved, a consumer can then approach it legally.

Why TRAI wants an independent authority for complaint redressal  

1. Non-efficiency of legal remedies: However, a consumer going to court with his/her complaint will have to spend a large amount of time and money, and will not receive a quick redressal. Therefore, many consumers aren’t willing to approach court with their disputes, added TRAI. This will have serious ramifications according to the regulator:

“It is imperative that consumer complaints and public grievances in the telecom space are resolved in a timely, efficient and cost-effective manner through a system that is easily available all across the country. Without such a system, benefits of the telecom revolution, which encompasses provision of a variety of services, such as banking, money transfer, govt. services, to the public will miss the intended target,” TRAI said in the paper.

2. No direct involvement of regulator in compliant redressal: Although the regulator sets Quality of Service (QoS) standard and updates those from time to time, TRAI says it has no direct share in redressing individual consumer complaints, which is also one of the reasons why a regulator body was created for the telecom sector. “A more involved role is hampered by the fact that the Authority does not have the administrative structure necessary to effectively handle public grievances for a sector like telecom,” TRAI said in the paper.

3. Lack of transparency: The regulator conducts multiple outreach programs and regular audits of a telco’s complaint redressal mechanism. Consumers have pointed out that the Appellate Authority run by telcos  provide a “standardized response” without actually looking into specific of the complaint, and lack in transparency, further only adds to the deteriorating redressal system. This only adds to the number of complaints bought to the regulator’s notice. Apart from this, the DoT also has Public Grievance cells for BSNL and MTNL users, however, these cells don’t actively engage is resolution of complaints and gets forwarded to the telco itself in the end, added TRAI.

Powers that the independent complaint system could have

TRAI said that the ‘Office of Ombudsman’ or the body for public grievance could be similar to that of the ‘Office of Ombudsman’ that has been already created for electricity, insurance, and banking. The independent redressal system “aim to provide the consumers with a faster, low cost/cost-free and fair mechanism to settle their complaints”, added TRAI. Following are the powers, functions proposed by TRAI:

(i) Established, managed, administered and funded by the Licensor – borrowed from the RBI’s Banking Ombudsman;

(ii) Established, managed, administered and funded by the Industry- taken from the Insurance Ombudsman for India;

(iii) Established, managed, administered by the Regulators at the State level, but funded by the Industry–same as in Electricity Ombudsman.

(iv) Statutory or legislative backing, wherein their decisions could bne binding on service providers, and could have powers to determine and award compensation for consumers.

Questions for consultation

Q1: Is the complaint redressal mechanism, as presently existing, adequate or is there a need to strengthen it?

Q2: Are there any specific changes that can be made to the existing system to improve it?

Q3: Should a separate – independent and appropriately empowered – structure to resolve telecom sector complaints and grievances be established?

Q4: If yes, please comment with regard to the organization; its structure; kinds of complaints to be handled and its powers?

Q5: Is establishing an Office of Telecom Ombudsman an option that should be revisited, especially given the experience of the past few years of increasing numbers of complaints?

Q6: If yes, how should it be created – the legal framework? What should be its structure? How should it be funded? What types of complaints should it handle? What should be its powers, functions, duties and responsibilities?

Image Credit: Flickr user Meghana Kulkarni under CC BY-NC 2.0