PCOs lack penetration in city

CHENNAI, FEB. 15. Over two years after the procedure for allotment was liberalised, telephone Public Call Offices (PCOs) remain conspicuous by their absence in many localities in the city.

It appears a case of too many or too little, as a chunk of the 30,000-odd public telephones, many with STD/ISD facilities, remain bunched up in certain pockets. Further distortion to the imbalance could be round the corner, as many of the PCOs are contemplating downing their shutters, owing to slipping revenues, according to telecom industry sources.

Such a situation prevails despite the estimated 20 per cent annual growth in the PCOs, after the Department of Telecom relaxed the procedures, in 1999, by abolishing the PCO Allotment Committee, a remnant of the License Raj.

It also abolished the condition of average earning for the existing franchisees to obtain new PCOs. Prior to these changes, getting a PCO was an uphill task, and involved access to political influence. In fact, the DoT decision came as a big boon for Chennai Telephones as allotment of PCOs in the region was in a freeze owing to the non-functioning of the STD/ISD/PCO Allotment Committee in the preceding one and a half years.

Buoyed by the changes, the PCO population rose in thousands in the next two years, only to end up fighting for a small piece of the cake as most of them targetted the same group of customers. In the process, many missed out on the opportunity lying dormant in unexplored areas.

Hence, the residents now play a silent spectator to a strange paradox in which they have the choice of calling from any of the umpteen public telephones on one side of the road to trudging long distances on the other to make a call.

Much of the present scenario could be attributed to the PCO operators themselves as complaints of over-charging, both for local as well as STD calls, are frequent. Coupled with this is the growth in the number of private connections _ Chennai Telephones crossed a million lines sometime ago _ and the popularity of cellular telephony because of their `affordability'. Though visible changes are seen in the form of equipment that serves as an advertising medium too, the drop in the popularity of PCOs is also because of the lack of privacy for the users.

While the growth-phase also saw many grocery stores getting a public telephone, the most affected are stand-alone PCOs. Says M.A.Azeez, President, Chennai STD/PCO Owner's Association, ``the commission rates continue to be at 20 per cent, despite a manifold increase in overhead cost for operating a PCO, such as rent, power and staff salary''. The recent reduction in STD tariff has also added to their misery.

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