Telemarketers have found ways to evade TRAI's rules and tariffs on promotional SMS

Just a few months ago, cellphone users rejoiced over the death of that pesky irritant: SMS spam. The new TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) regulations, first restricting the number of SMS we send out, and then, imposing a tariff of Rs. 0.05 per ‘promotional' SMS, appeared to have taken the economic viability out of flooding our inboxes with random, unwanted messages.

On paper, the rules made a clear distinction between ‘transactional' messages (sent by banks, public utilities or e-commerce players to registered customers) and promotional SMS, mandating that separate channels (or pipes) be used for both. However, it appears that telemarketers have been able to take advantage of the thin line separating the two categories. They are using the free-of-cost transactional pipe (or network capability) to send promotional messages, and sources claim that access providers or aggregators (who work as middlemen between the telecom service provider and retailers) are wittingly facilitating this violation.

So how does one really know if a promotional SMS that's arrived in your SMS inbox is sent on an illegal ‘pipe' or not? It's fairly easy: the TRAI guidelines mandate that all transactional messages — they are the ‘good' ones that we want — are distinguished from promotional ones in the header. While promotional messages must have a numeric mask, such as TM-12345, transactional messages have an alphabetic mask (TM-ABCDE). Each character in this header is mapped to code, access provider or retailer, making the message entirely traceable.

Spam SMS, of the promotional variety, is on the rise, industry players concede, and a substantial chunk of this spam is misusing the transactional channel to bypass the Rs. 0.05 surcharge. In December, TRAI acted on complaints on access providers routing SMS through international telecom operators' gateway, to circumvent the ‘Do Not Disturb' rules, by making top telemarketers and access providers sign a ‘code of conduct'. This makes these companies (there are over a 100 such providers across the country) directly liable in case of misuse.

Beerud Sheth, chief executive officer, SMSGupshup, an SMS-based social networking service, feels spam has made a comeback on the network. Worse still, he emphasises, telemarketers, access providers and merchants are working together to “blatantly misuse transactional pipes to evade the 5 paise charge” “This is a clear violation of rules. Many customers and retailers are reporting this to us. If unchecked, this could easily scale up and we will be back to square one,” he warns.

Mr. Sheth's company is also into the aggregation or access provider business, and alleges that other providers are pricing these “illegal SMSs” at 2.5 to 3 paise, and are actively promoting this misuse. SMS Gupshup and a few other access providers have reportedly complained to TRAI about this “increasingly ubiquitous” violation.

Industry insiders say that a comprehensive inquiry, probably under the auspices of TRAI, is needed to establish the scale of evasion.

While the guidelines are clear in making the distinction between the “good and the bad” SMS, and allocating separate network capabilities, it has not put in place any complaint mechanism. Unlike DND customers (those that have activated the Do Not Disturb service) who have a complaint line where they can report violations, no provisions have been made for general customers. Telecom service providers, sources say, have been receiving complaints on this, but are not empowered to do much more than warn access providers.

Operational challenges

Access providers are upset with the new regulations. Though most of the access providers, contacted by The Hindu, agreed that there was a “small quantity” of spam, they said this was more of a case of retailer misuse than an organised racket. Many also complain that the rules leave room for interpretation, and are ambiguous in terms of who is a willing recipient of a telemarketing message and who isn't.

Sanjay Agarwal, CEO of Unicel, a mobile service aggregator, says there are huge “operational challenges” in implementing the rules. “As an aggregator, we deal with thousands of customers, and there is a tendency that in the process things slip through the cracks,” he explains, adding that aggregators too are grappling with “huge declines” in volumes. Some industry estimates peg this decline at around 40 per cent. Access providers, and retailers, feel that the Rs. 0.05 surcharge is “stifling” the industry.

Solutions

So what is the way out? Will stricter implementation of the rules stop spam in its tracks, or is there a technological way around this? Girish Nair, CEO of NetCore, says that while there is a small increase in spam, the solution to this can be a quick technological fix. He suggests that TRAI allow for a ‘digital opt-in' provision, using which cellphone users can opt out of spam with DND, and then ‘opt in' to messages from whichever retailer/service they want to hear from. “A simple START <Brand Name> message can be used to do this. It is cumbersome for us to ensure every message sent is indeed transactional, and there are loopholes that marketers can exploit. A simple fix like this could be the way around this,” he says.