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Access fee as call rate leveller

New Delhi, Jan. 22: Preposterous as it may sound, the time when cellphone users called up fixed-line telephony customers and asked them to call back (to avoid paying the high call costs) may be over.

Cellphone and fixed-line call costs are set to slowly converge, bringing India in line with a worldwide trend.

Blame it all on access charges — a fee that phone networks have to pay each other to patch through calls. Cell operators now have to pay Rs 1.20 a minute to basic operators for routing calls from their network to the fixed-line customer. However, they receive nothing for calls made to their subscribers from the network of basic operators.

Access charges have been at the centre of a debate in the industry and is one of the biggest peeves cellular operators have against the telecom regulator, Trai. The regulator is now working on a pan-industry interconnection user charge regime due to be unveiled soon.

It is planning to work two aspects into its latest formula: first, scrap 3-minute metering for fixed-line calls; second, it will ask basic operators to pay an access charge of 30 paise to cellular operators for routing calls made by the formers’ subscribers.

The billing meter for fixed-line customers is now expected to tick over every minute, which is again in line with international norms. In effect, this means a fixed-line caller is likely to end up paying 60 paise per minute for a call made to a mobile or limited mobile phone against 40 paise a minute now.

On the flip side, cellular users are likely to pay less when they call the fixed-line customer because the access charge in their case is likely to be halved from Rs 1.20 per minute.

Fixed-line users could, however, stand to get other benefits. Trai plans to cut rentals by 20 per cent. It is also re-examining tariff for STD and overseas calls.

“A proposal to recast the tariff of STD/ISD calls is under review and may form part of the package to be announced later this week,” sources said.

There is also a move to introduce three distance slabs of 51-100 km, 101-200 km and 200 km and above. These slabs are being carved out of two existing ones — 50-200 km and 201-500 km.

The Trai formula, designed to usher in the calling party pays regime from April, is almost certain to spark a huge furore and legal battles between cellular, basic and limited mobile operators, government-owned telecom companies BSNL and MTNL, and the regulator.

Like the cellular operator, the limited mobility operator is also likely to be allowed to charge a minimum airtime of 50 paise per minute and get a 30 paise access charge from the basic and cellular mobile subscriber. A clause is also likely to be offered to limited mobile operators that will give them the freedom to decide whether they want to impose an airtime charge or not.

When a one-minute call is made from a basic phone to a cellular phone, the basic service provider will keep 30 paise and hand over 30 paise to the cellular operator. Similarly, when a call is made from the cellular phone to a fixed-line user, the cellular operator will keep 30 paise and pass on the remaining 30 paise to the basic operator.

A senior communications ministry official said: “If the losses run into only a few hundred crores due to the interconnection charges, we may not approach the Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal. But if they run into more than Rs 1,000 crore, we will have to examine the legal avenues.”

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