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If more subscribers should get extension, pay telcos from USO Fund: COAI

https://www.flickr.com/photos/kiwanja/3169460829/in/photolist-5Q5jhn-dANTPA-ab7GMg-eyJd7-5Q9q2A-aXDsCV-6Fq4DW-MteqM-4MFXGC-qXHU8E-9NZM7n-5orjow-8j8VJA-4MFSc7-4dKLc7-kJPy6u-rmJ4oD-5Q9yMU-dXS6uv-cvA8Gd-cihfQW-5C2MVo-5Q9pHN-5VxLW3-bUxGv3-bUxLXd-5Q5i8V-9JeWug-bUxELo-5Q9zrL-erzh2Y-qqdy2Z-5Q5aqt-2zs5Ji-8xUz7v-e5TRCn-5Q5iii-azeJAP-ncWFjk-5Q9qiE-5Xjm6T-pjPQb-8wEJ4i-bUwRcG-bUxipw-bUwTE3-oR71ts-5Q9yT3-bUxuVh-4JYssn

In a letter yesterday to TRAI, the Cellular Operators Association of India said telcos didn’t want to extend mobile plan validity to customers who do not need it. Telecom operators had taken steps last month to make sure that some of their poorest customers would keep access to calling and texting, following a TRAI order that told telcos to extend benefits to users due to the COVID-19 lockdown shutting shops that sell recharges down.

On April 7, TRAI told telcos that the steps they took in March are not enough, saying that all prepaid users needed to have their plan validity extended. In letters to Vodafone and Airtel, TRAI reportedly said that telcos’ selective approach to who would get plan extensions was excluding many 2G subscribers. Jio was also not spared — in a letter to them, TRAI said that since calling and SMS were billed separately from data, users who run out of call and SMS balance but still have an active plan would not be able to make any calls. Jio has only extended calling and SMS extensions to people whose plans expire.

(Side note, we bought Jio’s Work From Home plan for Rs 251 and found that even if we paid for talktime top-ups, it was impossible to place calls to non-Jio numbers. That plan, though offering more days’ validity than a pre-existing identically priced plan, has no provision for calling and SMS, something the telco doesn’t explicitly warn users about. So subscribers need to cough up more money to buy an additional plan — the cheapest one costing Rs 129 — to have talktime top-ups that were already purchased on top of the plan count.)

Pay up, or put up

COAI, for its part, seems determined to not cede any further concessions in terms of extending plan validity. Saying that the limited steps they have taken have costed telcos at least Rs 600 crore, COAI added, “We cannot believe it is the intention of TRAI that such benefits should be indiscriminately provided to even those privileged ones who are well able to afford such services and need no incentives or provisions to avail of continued mobile services. This would amount to an unjustified subsidy to this larger class of customers at a steep loss to the industry.”

But, in case the government is still intent on making sure more users are covered, COAI added at the end of the letter, they can do so by subsidising telcos with the Universal Service Obligation Fund. “This could be adequately compensated from the USO Fund where more than Rs. 51,500 Cr is being lying un-utilised as on 31.03.2020,” the letter said.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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