Telecom Secretary and TRAI Chairman refuse to give any fresh deadline to implement the new guidelines

Last year, a meeting between Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Opposition leaders to find a way to end the logjam in Parliament over the 2G spectrum scam was interrupted by a telemarketing call. His terse comment – “They don't even spare me” – at the meeting prompted the then Communications and Information Technology Minister, A. Raja, to order immediate action to check the menace of pesky calls and SMS.

Soon the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) came out with fresh guidelines, which included higher penalty, aimed at reining in telemarketing companies, and had set January 1, 2011, as the deadline to implement it. But the Department of Telecommunications is still to devise a mechanism to filter telemarketing calls and SMS. Since then, four deadlines have been missed, the latest one being March 21, 2011; and it looks like the solution to this problem is still at least a year away.

In its regulations to curb unsolicited calls and SMS, TRAI asked DoT to allocate identifiable series of phone number for telemarketers or mobile advertisers. Subsequently, DoT identified “140” series for this purpose, which has led to technical problems.

Issuing a 10-digit series for mobiles is not an issue; the problem is with landline phones as the State-owned BSNL will take at least 10 months to make technical changes such as configuration of networks and putting in place filtering solutions, to implement the new series. Both Mr. Chandrasekhar and Mr. Sarma have now refused to give any fresh deadline to implement the new guidelines.

Unlike its previous mechanism of “Do Not Call Registry,” where a subscriber needed to register with operators to bar telemarketers from calling them or sending messages, TRAI's new guidelines on unsolicited commercial communications (UCCs) say a user will now have to register his mobile number to get such calls and SMS. The new rules say no calls or SMS can be sent between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., while a penalty of up to Rs.2.50 lakh will be levied on erring telemarketing firms which will also face blacklisting for two years.

Additional revenue

As the ordeal of mobile users with telemarketing companies or mobile advertisers continues, mobile operators are happy to earn additional revenue from this business. Apart from pesky calls, the business of unwarranted SMS has now become a major concern as an average user receives at least 10-15 such SMSes everyday, thanks to the business of bulk SMS being offered by mobile operators and other companies.

While some old operators such as Bharti Airtel have stopped offering bulk SMS that put pressure on their network due to scarcity of spectrum, for new ones it has become an important source of revenue. Industry estimates suggest that the bulk SMS business is worth around Rs.300 crore to Rs.350 crore, with over 15,000 crore bulk messages being sent to mobile users every year.

With the mobile subscriber base in India touching 85-crore, and 2-crore users being added every month, for companies and marketing firms, every mobile user is a potential customer. As bulk short messages are available at as low as 1-2 paise per SMS, it has emerged as a very cost-effective medium to reach people. For instance, a bulk SMS company is offering buy-one-get-one-free scheme where a company or individual can send 2-lakh SMS for just Rs.5,515.

  • An average user receives at least 10-15 such SMSes daily

  • Bulk SMS business is worth around Rs.300-350 crore