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TRAI issues guidelines on international mobile roaming to prevent “bill shocks”

Telecom companies like Jio, Airtel and Vi will be required to keep international roaming disabled by default for their subscribers. International roaming fees are among the most expensive problem that telecom customers face; making calls or accessing the internet on an Indian number is very expensive abroad, and significantly more so without an international tariff pack — “standard rates” mean that even 1GB of use could cost over ₹1,000. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on Wednesday said that to avoid “bill shocks”, all telcos will be required to keep such roaming options for users disabled unless they request it.

TRAI is applying these new rules to both prepaid and postpaid plans, rejecting telecom operators’ argument that bill shocks are not a concern for users who have already paid. “The prepaid subscribers also risk losing money to the extent of top up balances in their accounts and therefore are also vulnerable to bill shock,” TRAI said in an explanatory memorandum.

Consent within 30 days for existing users

In addition to keeping international roaming deactivated by default, TRAI said that within thirty days of these regulations being published in the Gazette of India, telcos would have to reaffirm consent to international roaming from customers for whom the service is already active.

Airtel already has international roaming deactivated by default, according to its terms and conditions. Vi says on its website that it has a basic international roaming plan activated by default for customers who don’t buy active packs, and has a feature called RoamSafe to prevent bill shocks by disabling data use when subscribers are in countries where they haven’t purchased an international roaming pack.

However, in a TRAI filing, Vodafone Idea said that international roaming services are disabled by default for its customers. A help document on Jio’s website indicates that international roaming is not enabled by default for the carrier. As such, what this regulation will change from existing practice in this regard is unclear.

We have reached out to Vi, Airtel, Jio, and the Cellular Operators Association of India for comment.

Information for customers

TRAI has ordered that telecom operators make detailed information on international roaming available to subscribers, including initial and recurring tariffs, rates for voice, SMS and data tariffs, information on policies designed to protect the consumer, and “a list of actions” that customers can take to avoid being slapped with “bill shocks”.

The regulations say that upon arrival at the country where their international roaming pack is set, this information should be sent to them immediately, and warn them if they haven’t subscribed to an international tariff pack that they might rack up high fees from paying standard rates. Customers should also be warned when they have used fifty percent, eighty percent, ninety percent, or the entirety of their data allocation. Operators will also be required to set up a toll-free SMS short code that subscribers can text to find out how much they have been charged for international roaming, and what tariffs are available to them.

Background of these regulations

These regulations follow a consultation that TRAI initiated on May 26. Airtel agreed in that consultation that for postpaid users, roaming should be kept switched off by default. Jio said the same thing, and added that it is in telecom operators’ interest to keep “high value” international roaming users happy. BSNL, too, said that it keeps international roaming deactivated by default. The Economic Times reported that Jio sought “rationalisation” of international tariffs, saying there was too wide a gap between standard rates and rates that were charged under tariff packs. Jio affirmed this stand in its filing as well, but TRAI chose not to regulate tariffs.

These are the second regulations issued by TRAI in favour of transparency to consumers in September — on September 18, the regulator issued general directives on marketing and disclosure of telecom tariffs.

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