India’s telecom regulator TRAI has proposed a fine of Rs 5000 payable to customers of Global SIM operators (like Matrix Cellular and UniConnect), if a user’s connection experiences patchy/poor network coverage, non-activation issues or due to any other reason that are “beyond the control of the customer”. This is applicable to both prepaid and postpaid Global SIMs; TRAI has also included the issue of “incompatibility of handsets” as another reason for the Rs 5000 penalty payable directly to customers.

Note that the new penalty structure is in addition to already existing compensation structure for users of Global SIM providers. In 2014, DoT mandated a penalty of Rs.500 per hour for “delay in activation of SIM/calling card beyond the time limit” promised at the time of purchase.  TRAI also said that it would cancel No Objection Certificate (NOC) issued to Global SIM companies if more than 10% of the SIMs sold (monthly) turn out to be “non-working”.

Why TRAI is proposing hefty fines on Global telecom providers

Global SIM card companies have tie-ups with multiple carriers in countries they operate in, and ride on top of the host provider’s spectrum to provide calling/data services to customers—something like an International Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) operator. The main aim of such providers is to reduce international roaming costs incurred when users travel outside their country. But TRAI has pointed out in its notification that there has been a surge in the number of complaints placed against such Global operators. Complaints vary from overcharging, to poor customer care to (non) transparency in tariffs.

TRAI then issued a letter in 2015 to all such companies given NOC certificates, asking them to “respond to a questionnaire seeking details of type of SIM cards marketed, consumer grievance redressal mechanism, etc.” But at that time, only 17 operators responded to TRAI’s enquiries out of the total 38 companies that held an NOC. The regulator then issued another letter to 47 companies in 2016 that held an NOC, but again, only 15 companies responded while 9 other providers were found to have listed wrong mailing addresses [full list here]. The regulator has proposed to cancel NOCs issued to 23 companies that did not respond and 9 other companies that were unreachable. This decision is now pending approval from the DoT.

 However, Global SIM companies have given the following reasons for poor quality coverage:
-Issues related to incompatibility of Handsets.
-Lack of awareness of the users to execute the correct APN (Access Point Name) Settings; these settings acts as an important gateway between cellular networks and the Internet.
-Non-availability of tools to check the network coverage in advance
-Lack of awareness amongst the users about the specific calling methods in few countries where budget prefix is to be used.
-Instant activation of data connectivity by the user without his/her knowledge upon landing, and consumption of data inadvertently by pop-ups and unsolicited ads.

TRAI’s recommendation to Global SIM providers

The regulator has come with some additional directions that might need to be followed by International SIM providers, once the DoT approves them. These include:

GUI based network maps: TRAI proposed that Global SIM providers could develop Graphical map interfaces for their customers to check network coverage of SIM cards in each country they operate in.

Central complain monitoring portal: The regulator also wanted service providers to set up a centralized complaint registration and monitoring system that can be accessed on a real-time basis, hosted via the DoT website. This real-time data can be viewed by customers anytime and authorities alike. E.g. something like MouthShut reviews.

Maximum time for resolving complaints: 2 hours in case of non-activation on SIM card, and 5 working days in case of over-charging/high-billing, In case, service provider don’t meet these timeframes, they will be bound to compensate customers.  TRAI also proposed that Global service providers could list mobile numbers/email of senior executives and officers along with SIM cards to customers.

Record bank/PAN/Aadhaar details: Global SIM companies accepting online methods like net banking, credit/debit cards, wallets, etc. will additionally need to collect Bank A/C details, Aadhaar card (if provided) and PAN card for the purpose of faster reimburses.

Download: TRAI’s recommendations to DoT