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Airtel, Jio offer free calling for low-income subscribers

A telecom tower

In lightof the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, telco majors Airtel and Jio announced that they will be giving free calling services to low income subscribers using feature phones.

“As a one-time gesture, Airtel will give the Rs 49 pack FREE of cost to over 55 million low income customers. The pack offers a talk-time of Rs 38 and 100 MB data with a validity of 28 days,” Airtel said in a press release on Sunday. People buying a Rs 79 pack will get twice the call minutes and data than the plan usually offers. Airtel billed these concessions as “benefits worth Rs 270 crore”. The company said 55 million subscribers would benefit from the move.

The move closely followed a similar announcement by Jio, which said on Friday that it “will provide 300 free minutes of outgoing calls per month (10 minutes per day) for the entire period of the pandemic, to JioPhone users who have not been able to recharge due to the ongoing pandemic.” Jio said this was being done along with Reliance Industries’s nonprofit wing, the Reliance Foundation. It’s unclear why the foundation had to get involved, unless it is underwriting the cost of providing these plans. As far back as December 2019, Reliance was said to have sold around 70 million JioPhones, a number that has likely increased. Unlike Airtel, Jio didn’t reveal how many users it expects to benefit from this move.

These concessions have precedent. During the first lockdown of 2020, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) told telcos to extend subscribers’ plan validity. Telcos obliged, and extended validity for some subscribers. But when TRAI pushed further and asked for more coverage, telcos pushed back, and suggested that the government should foot the bill if they are so keen on covering all prepaid users — “This [expansion of coverage] could be adequately compensated from the [Universal Service Obligation] Fund where more than Rs. 51,500 Cr is being lying un-utilised as on 31.03.2020,” the Cellular Operators Association of India said in a letter to the regulator. The regulator then backed away from the demand.

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