Mobile operators respond to TRAI order on credible system of deactivation

The value added service (VAS) on your mobile phone can be a stubborn creature; once befriended, it refuses to go away.

Many users, who have at one point or the other subscribed to a VAS feature, have virtually found it akin to the celestial Betal on the shoulder of the mythological king. Surely, it ceases to be funny when you can’t suspend the “Jokes” features that you once enrolled for in the hope of getting a few laughs; and can only curse your stars if you fail to get rid of the “Horoscope” feature in the VAS portfolio even after punching the stipulated sequence on a short code or calling up the Call Centre of the service operator several times over. Several VAS users have taken to Internet forums to publicise their woes.

The good news on this front is that soon, mobile users will be able to unsubscribe an unwanted value added service after the Telecom Authority of India (TRAI) recently issued a set of guidelines directing mobile operators to institute more credible systems of VAS deactivation.

In response to the TRAI directive, BSNL last week issued a set of guidelines that essentially tightens its centralised VAS de-activation arrangement using the South Zone server and makes it easier for subscribers to opt out of a feature they no longer desire. Subscribers can send a text message with the key word “STOP” to a toll free short code (155223) — a code common for users of any mobile network — and even if the user sends a blank message it will be presumed to be a request for de-activation of VAS.

4-hour limit

On receipt of the SMS, the zonal server will send a response providing the user a range of VAS features to unsubscribe. In compliance with TRAI’s guidelines, BSNL has set a four-hour limit for the deactivation to be made operational.

The VAS basket in the mobile telephony space ranges across caller ring back tunes, jokes and games and film trivia to cricket scores, weather updates, traffic alerts and navigation tips, video-on-demand and mobile TV. The VAS industry in India is estimated to be in the Rs.25-30 crore range and rising.

In short, there is a lot riding on VAS revenues for both mobile operator and the content providers.

And, in a scenario where subscribers keep paying for services they neither need nor use, the consumption of value added services becomes a zero-sum game where subscriber losses can be balanced against the undue gains that are shared by operators and VAS vendors.

Interestingly, while issuing its guidelines, TRAI had flagged the spate of complaints from consumers about telecom companies renewing VAS products even when the available balance in the customer’s pre-paid account was insufficient. TRAI also made clear that it would keep tabs on activation of VAS features without the subscriber’s explicit consent.

Customers have to lodge a complaint within 24 hours of a wrongful VAS deduction occurrence to qualify for a refund, after that he can only get the deactivation without the refund. “Wherever we have received requests, we have been carrying out the deactivation of VAS features on a case-by-case basis. We have also started issuing refunds which are adjusted against the payment to the VAS providers,” said BSNL Chennai Telephones spokesperson G. Vijaya.

Chennai Telephones is receiving about 4,000 VAS-related complaints every month. BSNL is also popularising the SMS-based VAS deactivation channel among its users besides instituting a separate IVRS (Interactive Voice Response System) at its call center.

Common command structure

Very soon, it will have a common command structure at its zonal VAS server “to enable firing of deactivation commands directly into an integrated system irrespective of the vendor.” At present, the deactivation ecosystem is confined to five of its biggest vendors.

Murthy Chaganti, Circle Business Head- Chennai , Aircel, said deactivation requests each month were only about 0.1 per cent of the base. The operator, which has over 25 VAS vendors, content providers and aggregators on board catering to the Chennai-Tamil Nadu region, claims to have in place a robust VAS deactivation mechanism. “For the ease of understanding, the IVR prompts are also recorded in the regional language (Tamil for this region) for a better navigation,” Mr. Chaganti said.

However, T. Sadagopan, consumer activist, remains sceptical on whether the TRAI whip will deliver the desired results as mobile operators often put their revenue compulsions over transparency.

“This is apparent even in the case of the new VAS deactivation guidelines where there has been no worthwhile initiative from service providers to spread the word among their users,” he said.

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