The Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal in a ruling dated Thursday stayed TRAI’s order pausing Vodafone Idea and Airtel’s “premium” 4G plans for subscribers who pay more. The TDSAT said that while TRAI was justified in seeking a review into how those plans worked, staying those plans was not required. The tribunal said in its order that after completing its review, TRAI was entitled to issue final orders “in accordance with law”. This essentially entitles TRAI to file the same order again, but after it has completed its review of the plans, which it says could affect quality of service for regular 4G subscribers who don’t pay as much as “premium” subscribers.
Vodafone Idea and Airtel’s Priority/Premium 4G plans are questionable at best, since cellular operators have always said that it’s impossible to ensure a particular speed on wireless connections. If they are promising priority, what does that mean for other 4G subscribers, who have been getting access on a so-called “best efforts” basis? We have argued that these developments warrant a review of quality of service regulations in India, in both fixed line and wireless broadband.
Jio complaint led to TRAI order
Jio has filed an application to be a party in Vodafone Idea’s appeal against TRAI’s order. It emerged that Jio complained against Vodafone Idea and Airtel’s premium plans on July 8, and this seems to be what led to TRAI’s order against the plans. Vodafone Idea lawyer Meet Malhotra accused TRAI of bias, and said that the orders were issued to favour Jio’s cause. Jio, for its part, argued (like TRAI) that “higher or any pre-determined speed for data transfer is technically not feasible to be assured in the wireless system which is used for mobile telephony and therefore, till the inquiry is completed it would not be proper to permit the appellant [Vodafone Idea] to take advantage and acquire subscribers on the basis of advertisements of its scheme assuring higher speed,” according to the TDSAT’s summary of arguments.
Vodafone Idea and Airtel have until Wednesday, July 22 to file their responses to TRAI’s questionnaire on their premium 4G plans.
TRAI’s questions to telcos
Here’s an edited version of TRAI’s questions to telcos.
- There’s increased congestion in telecom networks and consumers are complaining of lower speeds. How will Vodafone Idea/Airtel ensure that non-premium customers continue to get good quality of service? Isn’t redistributing existing resources going to impact quality of service for customers paying less?
- Telcos have always said that since signal strength and bandwidth depend on a variety of factor for mobile broadband, they cannot commit to an average or minimum speed for customers. Now that premium plans are being introduced, how can non-premium subscribers raise concerns about service quality?
- By signing up subscribers to the premium tier, are service conditions being changed for them unilaterally? How do you communicate this to those subscribers?
- Does giving premium subscribers priority when networks are congested not impact regular subscribers? If not, how do you prove that?
- What does “Priority on Network” mean? Are resources being reserved for premium subscribers? If not, how would Airtel/Vodafone Idea subscribers know that they are being provided the service they were promised?
- Is any verifiable network or service parameter being assured to premium subscribers? If not, are ads for priority 4G misleading?
- Would a device on a priority subscription be able to tell that the user is subscribed to a premium plan? If so, what are the technical details of this?
- The Quality Council of India has defined multiple parameters on LTE standards. Is Vodafone Idea/Airtel compliant with the latest requirements set by the QCI?
- What information is being provided to premium subscribers? Is this information enough for them to make an informed decision?
- Aren’t telcos cashing in on customers facing network issues? What specific and definite advantage are premium subscribers getting?
- “Priority 4G Network” and “Faster Speeds” are ambiguous terms, and terms & conditions for these plans do not elaborate on what customers on these plans will get. This violates TRAI’s 2012 direction on transparency in advertising mobile tariffs. You are required to explain this.