While a step in the right direction, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s move last week to reduce and reorganise national roaming charges fails to go the full distance. The telecom regulator has reduced the ceiling for outgoing voice charges for a roaming subscriber from Rs.1.40 to Re.1.00 per minute for local calls and from Rs.2.40 to Rs.1.50 per minute for STD calls. Similarly, ceiling tariffs for incoming calls for a roaming user have been cut from Rs.1.75 to 75 paise per minute. Since this is a cap, operators are free to charge less. In reality, though, they are unlikely to do so. While Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal and the National Telecom Policy 2012 had both spoken of “removing the roaming charge,” TRAI decided abolition was not feasible. For telecom operators, roaming costs have fallen from what they used to be but have not vanished. If roaming charges become free for subscribers, operators will not be able to recover costs from the roughly 13 per cent of the 860 million subscribers who roam nationally. To recover an approximately Rs.13,000 crore revenue loss on account of free roaming, they would be forced to hike call rates for the 600 million-odd, non-roamers. In nearly all cases, this would mean the poor subsidising the rich, which is hardly fair. Moreover, TRAI has retained the element of choice. Operators have been mandated to offer special plans where heavy roamers can avail of free national roaming for an additional fixed charge.
The problem begins when TRAI approaches data — specifically SMSs — with a mindset trapped in voice telephony-related network costs. While keeping incoming SMSs free, the regulator has dispensed with its forbearance policy and placed a ceiling for outgoing local SMS at Re.1.00 and STD SMS at Rs.1.50/SMS. This will certainly slow down the roaming SMS gravy train, which had allowed service providers to take unsuspecting roaming users for a ride. What doesn’t add up is the fact that the cost of sending an SMS, including the cost of storage and forwarding facility, is a fraction of a voice call. An SMS does not use voice channels, unlike speech, and costs just a few paise to send. The new SMS tariffs are also inconsistent with the recent reduction in 2G data tariffs by operators. TRAI’s press release and accompanying documentation fail to explain this anomaly. Consumers ought to pay much less than what TRAI has recommended. Even where local SMSs are concerned, the termination charge regime being pursued by operators makes the price exorbitant. TRAI would be well advised to review its data-related techno-economic process to acknowledge the importance and convenience of SMSs in today’s times.