What's the buzz?

THE BSNL'S offer of mobile phones based on the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology led to a rush that one had to be part of to understand what it meant. The offer that was advertised late last month in the newspapers, motivated people to join the serpentine queues and wait patiently from morning till evening to get a phone set.

Seven locations were identified for distribution and each was meant for subscribers belonging to the area. It seemed almost every subscriber joined the motley crowd, hoping to get a set before dusk. But standing in the queue did not mean that one would reach the cash counter to make the necessary deposit.

Observation showed that people were getting in, but not from the queue. The security personnel allowed stray visitors to get in and quite a few of them came out with the prized grey boxes containing the handsets.

On Monday (August 4), there was a sub-inspector from the K-4 police station located less than a stone's throw away, who with the constables tried hard to restore order where the queue had swelled suddenly when free riders forced themselves in.

What's the buzz?

On Tuesday (August 5), a couple of policemen tried to manage the restless crowd that was restricted to the queue. The constables also attempted to bring some order to the randomly parked two wheelers and bicycles, which usurped a significant portion of the carriageway. But after a while the constables vanished, leaving the patient lot to handle the chaos.

What was so special about the BSNL offer? There are firms offering wireless in local loop (WLL) CDMA service so the BSNL offer was nothing extraordinary. In fact, BSNL has only 36 base stations now and intends to increase the number to more than 60 by September this year, according to a senior DoT official. The rush was because of the unbeatable price. Tarang CDMA mobile was being offered for a down payment of only Rs.20. Though it was possible to buy a handset outright or on instalment (by paying the price or the instalment by demand draft), the offer of a handset for Rs.20 impressed the subscribers. Even though one would have to pay Rs.200 a month as rental for the service and Rs.20 a month as insurance fee (for the handset, in case it is lost and one has to file a claim), and Rs.1.20 a call from the handset, the down payment price, according to most subscribers was too good to be true.

What about the distribution of the handsets? How systematic was the crowd management? These proved to be embarrassing questions to senior telecommunication officials. "The crowd is considerable because of the price," said a senior official in Chennai. ``Our handsets have been properly tested and any manufacturing defect is our responsibility. But consumers have to pay for consumables such as the battery sets. Given the rush we may close the offer in a few days and consumers would have to wait till another offer is made in future," said S. Bose, deputy general manager (marketing and public relations), BSNL in Chennai. True to his word, on Thursday (August 7) there was a notice outside the North Peripheral office in Anna Nagar thanking the subscribers and informing them that the scheme was closed temporarily.

The BSNL offer seems attractive, especially to those who already have landlines. One could always opt for the no-frills service - without STD or ISD and pay Rs.220 every month as basic service charge (outgoing calls have to be paid for, depending on a subscriber's choice). The quality of reception shows that CDMA technology is impressive but one must compare the prices of pre-paid cellular phone service offered by competing firms. For Rs.105 more (for a recharge card with a talk value of Rs.175), one can get talk time plus other facilities such as SMS for GSM-based (using SIM cards) mobile phone service.

The clinching aspect of the BSNL offer seems to be the low insurance fee. One doesn't have to invest in a handset and Rs.240 a year as insurance fee is less than the interest one would get if one invested the handset price equivalent in a bank. But one also pays Rs.2,400 a year for the connection that is a lot more than what you would pay for recharge cards for the GSM-based service. For the BSNL service you don't have to pay extra connectivity charges when you use your SIM-based phone to connect to a landline. The BSNL has, in addition, lived up to its reputation of excellent service and consumer-friendly policy.

When the BSNL offers the service again, it must implement a system of distribution where the pain to subscribers is minimised and ensure that every potential subscriber is pleased with the handset. After all, that is what good customer service is all about the world over. As for the BSNL, it is hoped, it does not intend to drive its customers away to competing private firms offering the same technology.