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Railways clash with telcos on 100 free SMS limit; paying ₹2 crore a year on texts

Indian Railways clashed with telecom operators over a 2012 rule that capped the number of free SMSes customers can send to 100 per day. A delegation of multiple railways officials presented their case to remove this limit at a TRAI open house discussion held online on May 6, the first of its kind. TRAI held the discussion for the Draft Telecommunication Tariff (Sixty-Fifth Amendment) Order, 2020, which would delete a 2012 tariff order that placed this restriction.

In late 2018, the Railways had switched from Airtel to Jio as the employees’ official wireless service provider. Airtel, their previous operator, had exempted mass SMS messages, the preferred mode for Indian Railways for internal communications, from the 100 SMS limit. This let employees send SMSes to each other without a limit. But Jio did not do this after it took over, reasoning that TRAI’s 100 SMS limit left them with no choice but to charge ₹0.50 for every SMS after the first hundred. This, railway employees complained, has led to a situation where they are paying Rs 2 crore a year for SMSes.

TRAI: Telcos can still charge for SMS for retail users

Telcos uniformly pushed back against lifting the limit, arguing (as in filings: COAI, Jio, Airtel, Vodafone–Idea, BSNL) that it would lead to an explosion in SMS messages from unregistered telemarketers, who would be able to simply pick up a retail connection and send several messages before being caught. TRAI chairperson R.S. Sharma seemed less than convinced with this argument. “Is there any regulation which prescribes that you can’t charge money for SMSes” beyond a certain number of texts?”, he asked. “In my view that doesn’t exist because nobody is preventing you from charging money after 100 SMSes. Tariffs are all under forbearance, you can charge what you want to charge,” he said.

Sharma was essentially pointing out that even after the 100 SMS limitation is lifted, telcos wouldn’t be required to provide SMS services for free to customers beyond that limit, and even right now are within their rights to charge for texts beyond, say 20 messages.

But telcos disputed that reasoning, saying that even if one competitor relaxed limits on texts, others would be forced to follow. “Once other telecom service providers start charging below 50 paise for SMSes beyond the limit, we are compelled to follow that,” a Jio representative said on the call. Sharma shot back, “You are competing in the market. The 100 SMS rule is not a minimum support price. You want to come into that category of industries with MSP or what? Why do you want to have vestiges of the archaic rules in existence when you have the freedom? Why ask TRAI to prevent you from having a free market?”

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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