[Editors note: Today is the last date for filing comments for TRAI’s Consultation Paper on Data Speed Under Wireless Broadband Plans. The last date for counter comments is the 24th of August 2017. Download the consultation paper here, and do consider participating]
By Pradeep S. Mehta and T. V. Ramachandran
The year 2016 saw India dethroning USA to become the second largest user of smartphones in the world which gave a big boost to mobile broadband. With increasing competition and upgradation to 4G, prices for mobile broadband services have crashed to an all-time low. With nearly half a billion telecom subscribers consuming over 1.00 gigabyte per month now, this is nothing short of an amazing achievement. However, on the flip side, when Digital India is the mantra, the pride in this is tarnished by the poor Quality of Service (QoS) and Quality of Experience (QoE), badly affecting both consumers and the economy. Service providers have to gear up to deal with this in a transparent manner.
Digital India, the ambitious flagship initiative of Government, rests on nine crucial pillars. The first and foremost pillar is ‘Broadband Highways’. It is therefore axiomatic that widespread availability of good quality broadband is a sine qua non for achieving Digital India. Unfortunately, India rates very low in the global ranks as regards broadband adoption – as low as 156 of 179 countries ranked.
Ironically, both the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ are equally unhappy and dissatisfied with broadband services. While the excluded are unhappy due to lack of services, the included are unhappy because of lack of quality. Despite the telecom sector witnessing a cut-throat competition on prices, quality has remained largely poor and unaddressed since long.
A recent study by CUTS International and IIT Delhi found that the perception of consumers in India towards the QoS of their mobile internet services is quite poor. In general, a majority of consumers grumbled about the broadband speed and the download limit. It is therefore high time that the telecom industry starts competing on quality and not just the prices.
In India, selecting a broadband service by consumers has invariably been based on hearsay, operators’ claims and confusing ads. The market abounds with claims on speed by different players along with disputes on testing methods and results. Consumers can hardly ever base their choice of provider because of: firstly, lack of information to compare, and secondly, lack of a tool to compare. This has always resulted in an uninformed decision making by consumers. Availability of information thus plays a very critical role in empowering consumers.
For information disclosure, countries such as Singapore and UK have designed an efficient mechanism that mandates broadband service operators to provide complete information to subscribers through their websites. In 2016, the USA regulator, FCC, introduced the concept of labelling broadband services similar to the nutrition labels displayed on food packages. This mandates operators to disclose QoS parameters through a standard label to consumers. India needs urgent action on this front and it is heartening that TRAI is examining the matter seriously.
When speaking about Broadband Labels, it should first be recognised that broadband is all about speed. No consumer would like to have a broadband service with sub-par download speed. While one gets to see a bit of consistency with fixed broadband, the situation with Indian mobile broadband is markedly poor. Experts tell us that, unlike with fixed broadband, in mobile broadband one cannot stipulate a minimum or average speed because of there being several factors such as subscriber density and load at a point of time, availability of cellsites, distance from cellsite, etc. While there is some truth in this claim, this cannot be a convenient excuse for a shoddy service.
It is also unacceptable that when over 92% of consumers are accessing broadband through mobile, they are helpless against sub-par download speeds. Other regimes like USA, Europe, China, Singapore and Hong Kong have well-developed fixed networks which provide adequate broadband service and so their situation is different. They may not be under pressure for minimum download speed.
However, India, with over 92% accessing broadband through mobile, has to find a mechanism for informing consumers transparently at least about average download speed, if a minimum speed is not technically possible.
Even the latest Akamai Report for Q1, 2017 once again highlights the poor status of India in respect of download speeds:
The Indian consumer needs to get a fair deal in respect of download speed provided and for this, he needs to be provided information to make an informed choice. Even if minimum speed is not technically feasible, at least average download speed, as calculated under specified conditions, needs to be stipulated by the TRAI for inclusion in the Broadband Label. If typical or average speed is not indicated by the operator, the TRAI should not permit it to be marketed or sold as broadband.
Furthermore, if broadband QoS aspects are packaged with intimidating technical jargon and in a customer-unfriendly manner, one would obviously meet with resistance from the consumer. Regulator should stipulate that the QoS status is declared transparently without gobbledygook so that the consumer can comprehend it.
The TRAI deserves praise for issuing directions to enhance transparency and disclosure for broadband services. Great strides have been made to attain higher broadband quality through these measures. However, much more needs to be done. Not only is there the need to introduce at the earliest Consumer Broadband Labels, but, even more importantly, the design of these has to be customised to suit the Indian consumer’s requirement in a predominantly mobile broadband environment.
The authors are Secretary General of CUTS International and President of Broadband India Forum, respectively. Rahul Singh of CUTS contributed to the article.