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Even without adding #NetNeutrality to the mix, the relationship between the average consumer and any telecom services provider in India is a tetchy one at best. Irrespective of whether you opt for prepaid or post-paid services, you seem to be forever haggling over available services and the pricing thereof, and, later, about the quality of said services. What makes it worse is that most telecoms have been overzealous to cash in on a vastly viable opportunity without investing in consumer awareness. Thus, most consumers are left arguing with customer care executives who are themselves rarely well-informed about the products and services offered.

Into this already bubbling cauldron falls the fresh bone of contention which has been dubbed the #NetNeutrality debate. Before launching into it though, I must admit to not being an expert in this domain, and am only offering my own understanding as a consumer of these services. In essence, the debate has everything to do with the Internet, as may be surmised, and how it is packaged as a product. When we sign up for data services offered by a telecom company, we agree to pay a certain fee for a certain amount of data downloaded and/or uploaded to the Internet via that company’s network. Now, many of these data service providers threw in such freebies as offering free access to certain websites along with certain data plans. So if you purchased data services for your phone from Company X, you might not be charged for the data consumed on Facebook or Twitter or WhatsApp, for instance.

While this seems like a fairly innocuous marketing strategy – we are all suckers for freebies, this idea has its flipside, which is what the #NetNeutrality debate is centred around. Now, telecom services are suggesting they will charge more for data used towards certain services, specifically those using Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, (e.g. Skype, WhatsApp, Viber), which allow users to call each other for “free”. It is important to note that “free” is not actually “free” –you may not be paying for the call itself, but you are paying for the data transferred over the Internet, whether on your mobile or other Internet connection.

The rationale offered by the service providers is that, with consumers making calls through these applications, they are losing out on call revenues. This cleverly sidesteps the fact that consumers may be paying less for voice, but they are using and paying more for data services. Given that voice and video services generally consume a fairly large amount of data, it can very well be argued that the gain in data revenues will more than compensate for loss in voice revenues. But the argument is about far more than economics. As the adage goes, it is not about the price, it is about the principle.

And the principle is that those offering data services at cost should not be concerned with how that data is utilized, for the simple reason that it infringes on the personal choice of the consumer. This aspect is highlighted by the perversion of the freebie idea; telecom companies can support one product over a competing product for, say, online entertainment, and force their consumers to use the free product rather than pay extra for the product of their choice. This has the potential to create a cartel of services which can then monopolize consumer “decisions”, and, so to speak, break up the internet.

Underlying this debate are the varying perceptions about the Internet – for the consumer it is a medium, like television or radio, through which to access much more than just information or entertainment. But for the service provider it is a product that can be packaged many ways. Already, Internet packages are offered based on quantity of data (300 MB, 1 GB, etc.), type of data network (2G, 3G, etc.), and even time of access (night-time specials, etc.). As already mentioned, avid users of Facebook, etc. can even purchase data packs tailored to give them free access. Such packs also violate net neutrality, and perhaps consumers should have wondered about the catch before queuing up for the freebies, but then the Internet has always conjured up visions of Utopia.

So what happens now? Are consumers supposed to just bend over and let telecom service providers stomp over them simply because they forgot that there are no free lunches? Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a consultation happening in India, hosted by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, as a lead-up to which a public discussion is raging on – where else? – the Internet. For the average consumer, the issue may appear to be too overwhelming, but, unfortunately, it is the price for lunches already eaten without regard to cost. Hopefully, this will be a one-time payment that settles not just the debt but also the debate for the foreseeable future.

If you are still wondering what on earth is happening, here’s the low-down. The Internet has become the proverbial goose that’s laid far too many golden eggs and now those seeing themselves as its owners are salivating at the thought of cutting it up. You can raise your voice and prevent this from happening, thus preserving #NetNeutrality. The villains in this story include some very familiar names, like Airtel and Vodafone and Reliance. But unlike Bollywood movies, no one hero or heroine can step up and take on them all. On the Internet, we are all heroes and heroines; equally, we can all become the villains or the sidekicks. The choice is ours, to write a story that sounds something like that of Appu and the bus operators.

I was on Twitter when the news of the 2G judgment cancelling all the licences from Raja hit. It was HUGE 122 licences scrapped! 3 of Tata, 21 Videocon, 22 Uninor, 9 of Idea, 6 of S-tel, 13 of Swan, 21 of Loop, 21 Sistema Shyam – poof! gone.

Devastation hit the ranks. The instant, knee jerk reactions were all about “foreign investors” and “overseas markets”. India would lose credibility as a market. This sent a bad message to investors, etc etc.

Then the political tweets hit, and the “good side” of the verdict became more visible. Landmark judgment, now does the Congress admit… etc. But more than a political decision, I saw this as a setting of a high standard on the whole subject of corporate favor. Most were furious with Raja, but still used Idea connections. This pulls the curtain on all that. Being part of a corrupt deal is corrupt. Period. This is greater than the myopic – “oh, now the Congress can’t squirm its way out of this”.

In my eyes, this is a date to be recorded in our country’s economic history.

I saw something tremendous happening with India and its economic journey. In a country where perpetrators of the Bhopal Gas tragedy were sheltered by the government to maintain an investment climate, and the government is all but selling people itself to raise money, this was a massive about turn. MASSIVE.

This changes everything. A thousand times more than the Lokpal. This strips the facade that it was only the government that was corrupt. The government-corporate nexus gets called out for what it is, and then slammed unequivocally.

In my eyes, what happens with the 2G licences is still minor in the face of the precedent that was set today. Corporations that collude with the government to bend rules can be devastated any time in the future. In essence, it set the date on taking a sigh of relief at having pulled a “good deal” to an uncompromising “never”. You get caught, you are back to square one, plus your loss.

Today’s Supreme Court judgment is going to haunt every corporate-government deal from now on. No telling what will happen if caught in future. Big incentive to play straight.

I believe that more than justice, this moment is historical in its deterrent. The Supreme Court has put its foot down. Bend the country’s laws to get undue favor, and no matter who you are, no matter how fait accompli your deal is, you will get what is due, when it comes before the court. This brings up hope that the many times the country has been sold short can all be hauled into court and set right, instead of simply voting for a better future and keeping fingers crossed.

This makes any corporation thinking of getting licences/rates/clearances it doesn’t qualify for to think again. It clearly sets a business code for dealing with the country, which is less said, but its impact will have to be considered in every future deal in the country.

Expect to see more hope on mining scams and what nots. This will recharge the fight for people’s rights like nothing else can.

I am happy for the opposition leaders, but this sets a worrying precedent for them too. NO ONE is above the law. Whoever’s turn comes, comes.

The country matters.

And it says one more thing. We are so blinded by stocks and markets and investments, that many of us saw this decision as a bad thing at first sight. Some barely stopped short of accusing the Supreme Court of damaging “national interest” [read "investment climate" - that seems to be what national interest has been reduced to].

It is high time we found a sense of ethics to match the vocal righteousness. The country is growing and you want to be on the right side of history, no?

 

 

33

I have been having trouble with Airtelfor a long time, since I got suddenly overbilled out of the blue and from a normal bill of about Rs.350/- I got a bill of more than Rs.9,000/- There had been no change in my usage.

I raised the alarm when I got an SMS warning that the bill had gone over Rs.6,000/- and it still kept rising.

To compound that, complaints I made got terminated arbitrarily saying that I didn't answer my phone. Strangely, all their calls asking me to pay get answered just fine. Why would I do that?

Then, Airtel conned me out of Rs.2,500/- in the name of a settlement, which they recorded as a part payment. They had refused to give a settlement letter at that time, saying it was normal policy.

I discovered this, when the day my number was supposed to start working again came and went and I called to find out.

Then the menacing phone calls from Airtel's legal department started. Relentless serial calls asking for money. To the extent where I filed a complaint, and the girl called me to taunt me and threaten me further because I filed a complaint.

I followed up with the police station, and the calls stopped.

They have started again. Again it is the legal department. I explained the paroblem, and they sent me a "settlement email" from theglobalconsultants@gmail.com which legal process will accept this as official Airtel communication?

They want me to pay on the basis of this. This time, they claim it will really be settlement.

Dear Madam,

This is with reference to your A/C no 109-100362836 for mobile no 9892469127.

We would like to inform you that your above mention account b has an Outstanding of  Rs. 6738.85/- will have NIL balance if you pay a sum of Rs. 4700/- (Four Thousand Seven Hundred Only/-) after adjusting Deposit of Rs. 0/- in one monthly installment (s) vide Cheque/Cash/pay order payable in favor of BhartiAirtel Ltd.

In process of settlement if your banker returns any of your cheque (s), the above settlement stands null & void and you would be liable to pay the entire outstanding as on date.

Please acknowledge this letter as a token of acceptance on or before 27th Sep 2011 failing with this will be treated as null & void.

Thanking You

Rima Shetty (Advocate)

So we have here an advocate who claims to be consultant, or goons who are faking both the "advocate" and "consultant". Seeing as how there is no official website, phone number or anything at all indicating this is a legal entity.

Which, essentially is no different from when they conned me out of the earlier payment - this is not communication from Airtel. Last time, they had refused, and said that it was not procedure to give settlements officially, then took money and gave a receipt that said it is not valid for settlements.

This time, they are offering a letter, but not from Airtel.

And the accompanying calls are threatening too. Last time, they threatened to access my call records and call all the people I had called to demand my payment. This time, they are speaking of my relatives paying.

The woman asked me if I was a beggar, and then told me I was a beggar, and described some dargah somewhere where people like me can get money and to go there and earn money and pay them, etc.

I live tweeted some of this shit.

You know the dargah,. go there, beg money, pay your bill. Or your relatives will have to pay. ~ Airtel "legal" department. Sneha Patil
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
You will get calls, that you will wish you had paid. You haven't seen how we recover money. ~ Airtel "legal" department. Sneha Patil
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
Make all the police complaints you want, you can't do anything to us. Pay up. I am sending my man ~ Airtel "legal" department.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
If you don't pay, all your relatives will have to pay. Have you left them all? Are you a beggar? Go to beg and pay. ~ Airtel "legal" dept
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
"The Global Consultants" - theglobalconsultants@gmail.com THIS is Airtel's legal dept? "Advocate Reema Shetty" sent email.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
@ShivAroor Kidding you not. Live tweeting while on phone @airtel_in
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
43473913 is the number from where I am getting the calls. - Airtel's "legal" department.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
The Airtel Saga http://bit.ly/qIf2nA http://bit.ly/rgbQPz http://bit.ly/nNxqpN http://bit.ly/mZ6G0g
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
The only sorrow is that I didn't record that phone call, because I couldn't figure out how. Tweets can't convey that taunting tone.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
Now that my personal problems seem to have paused a bit, I suppose I should take time out and do the consumer court thing.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
But really, it isn't only about me and one bill or settlement, but the "system" of threatening people and selling their personal information
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
Who gives airtel the right to sell my outstanding to some third party goon for extortion? Is not a violation of my information?
Vidyut
September 28, 2011

As usual, @airtel_presence has replied that they are looking into the matter. I doubt if the goons care about them.

On the other hand, now that I am back home for however long, I can do the consumer courts thing.

The way I see it, the original bill being inflated, and complaints disregarded was one part of it. Then, my information being sold to a third party - this is not my agreement with Airtel. And then, the criminal harassment and threats to people around me.

Sure, they may not act on them, but how do I know? How do I know that they will not harm me or my family? Who is responsible if elderly relatives get health problems if faced with such threats?