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Rivals fixed on BSNL line

New Delhi, Oct. 5: It’s a dog-eat-dog world ' and the largest mastiff on the telecom block has finally snarled in rage, forcing the others to yelp in pain.

Customers of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), the largest telecom company in the country, will now have to pay more for calls they make to friends on private fixed-line networks like Tata Teleservices’ Walky, Reliance Infocomm and Bharti’s TouchTel.

The state-owned telephony major has done this very subtly: it has maintained the call rate at Rs 1.20 but slashed the pulse rate to 45 seconds from 180 seconds (or 3 minutes) earlier. The pulse rate is the time interval after which the meter ticks over ' and a long call will now cost as much as four times more than it did earlier.

The new rate structure came into effect from October 1 and the costs will show up in the next month’s bill.

BSNL is hitting back at the private operators with this move. Private operators had annoyed BSNL with their discriminatory tariff which made fixed-line calls to subscribers of their mobile networks cheaper than those to BSNL customers. The tariff plan was designed to ratchet up their fixed-line subscriber base.

An irate BSNL ' already embroiled in a battle with private fixed-line services over their ‘limited mobile’ services like Walky ' has decided to retaliate with its own loaded tariff plan. Calls within the BSNL network will continue to be charged at a pulse rate of 180 seconds.

Mobile operators taken together have a higher market share than BSNL and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. But the two public sector telecom majors together have a larger share of the fixed-line market than private operators. (See chart)

Last month, BSNL had shot off a letter to Reliance Infocomm and Tata Indicom informing them that it would reduce the pulse rate to 45 seconds since these operators were offering a “limited mobile” service on their fixed-line phones. Tata’s Walky, for instance, is a wireless phone service that works anywhere within the subscribers’ premises ' and could stretch a little bit more.

BSNL has cried foul ' and has accused the private fixed-line operators of offering a mobile service and denying the state-owned operator the payment of an access deficit charge (ADC).

Later, BSNL sent letters to Himachal Futuristic Communications Ltd, the telecom operator in Punjab, and Shyam Telecom in Rajasthan.

All mobile telephony operators are required to make an ADC payment to BSNL, which compensates it for the loss it suffers for offering uneconomical telephony services in remote areas and villages.

Fixed-line operators are not required to pay the ADC, but BSNL argues that they should pay the levy if they offer a “limited mobile service”. BSNL has argued that the private fixed-line companies were avoiding the payment of ADC but generating 12 to 15 per cent additional revenue by offering services like Walky.

Both the telecom regulator Trai and the appellate authority ' telecom dispute settlement appellate tribunal (TDSAT) ' upheld the state-owned telephony major’s contention. The case is now before the Supreme Court. TDSAT had ordered Reliance Infocomm to pay a penalty of Rs 150 crore to BSNL and Tata Teleservices to fork out Rs 450 crore. The appellate tribunal also asked the Tatas to offer Walky as limited mobile service and remove all advertisement related to Walky.

Early this month, AirTel received a letter from BSNL stating that the pulse rate for calls made to their network had been brought down to 45 seconds. “AirTel (Touchtel) was inadvertently missed in our order and this is to inform that the same will be applicable to AirTel,” says BSNL in its letter.

A senior BSNL board member said, “We have reacted to a simple pricing mechanism in the market. The private mobile operators have not been stopped offering such tariff schemes. This is increasing their subscriber base; we want to increase our fixed-line user base.”

“Moreover, the private operators have not changed their prefix numbers for us to identify whether the call is a from a fixed-line or a limited mobile phone. We have sent them reminders and will continue to charge all calls to fixed-line numbers at the fixed-line rate,” the BSNL official said.

Reliance Infocomm’s fixed-line numbers start with 30xxx and 39xxx while its Iphone fixed mobile starts with 31xxx to 38xxx. The 31 to 38 series was allotted for limited mobile phones but after the migration to the unified access service licence (UASL), this series has been changed to 93xxx. However, Reliance used the 31 to 38 series to offer Iphone fixed mobile, which is termed illegal.

Similarly, Tata Indicom's fixed line and limited mobile phone numbers used to start with 55xxx to 59. The mobile numbers now start with 93 prefix. After the UASL regime came into effect, they are using the vacated series to offer Walky phone services.

Officials in the department of telecommunications (DoT) had objected to the skewed tariff plans formulated by the mobile phone operators as it discriminated against a telephone subscriber on the basis of his choice of operator. However, Trai feels that such tariff schemes should be allowed since it has brought down phone call rates in India to one of the lowest in the world.

Meanwhile, AirTel has written to Trai protesting against the BSNL order and arguing that it would kill competition and private operators.

An AirTel executive said, “We do not offer services like Walky or Iphone anywhere in the country. Why should we be penalised' It is BSNL’s expansion of monopoly that will harm the consumers.”

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