Who Cares For #Rurban Consumers?

While BSNL landline internet service in rural areas is the pits, private ISPs like TataDoCoMo and Airtel are not bothered.

telco logosThis writer has been a Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) landline and broadband internet customer for over 10 years now. For the last few years, I have been staying in a village called Parkala, which is a hop, skip and jump away from the educational, medical and financial hub of Manipal, close to the temple town of Udupi in coastal Karnataka.

As a typical internet addict—and with no TV connection (cable or otherwise) whatsoever—most of my waking hours are spent browsing the net. This is also my main link with most of the world and my friends and extended families. I read major newspapers and online news portals, some on a daily basis and others occasionally whenever a link from Facebook or Twitter lead to the stories; my online viewing was mainly the ghastly Arnab Goswami till a few months back when he became unbearable for my family who, in turn, threatened me with dire consequences if peace in the house was disturbed!

And all this throughout bearing the pathetic service from BSNL, the government’s communications provider.

My trouble with BSNL were of ancient origin, almost every since I took the monopoly service. I had a long litany of complaints, mostly relating to the internet connection and the occasional landline disruption. I have also seen the pathetic state of BSNL exchanges where, I am told, cannibalisation of equipment was a frequent occurrence. If there was a problem in one exchange and the complaints became intolerable, the ‘card’ from the exchange was exchanged with a functional one from another exchange.

Many times, the copper wires were the culprits, the weather being blamed often by the linemen who had to face the brunt of subscribers’ ire. In my locality, overloaded trucks used to frequently bring down the phone wires.

Of course, many times it was the “Chinese-made” ‘card’ problem in the exchange itself, but no one was willing to accept it officially. Many times, the relations between the linemen and the district sub-divisional officers (telecom) or SDOTs to whom I had to reach out in exasperation were strained. One young SDOT told me: “We cannot force the linemen to respond immediately; because they will immediately complain against us for caste discrimination”. It is another matter that the linemen used to frequently grumble that the SDOTs used to put pressure on them unnecessarily. You see, there was this claim of perennial shortage of staff.

If it was the shortage of staff on one side, it was also the availability of spare ‘cards’, cables and other equipment. If a lineman told the SDOT that the cable needed to be replaced, then it would be caught in paperwork and bureaucratic tangles.

And, sometimes they used to blame the modem also! Once I took it to the deputy general manager’s office for testing; the person there never saw this modem brand and said it was not functional. The dealer from whom I had purchased it tested it and said it was OK. Mysteriously the next day, the internet connection was back to normal.

At another time, I took the modem to the exchange and they said it was perfectly fine and blamed the Chinese ‘card’.

The new SDOT came once to my house and promised to come again and do a comprehensive check: He did not. This was about two-three months ago.

Now, to cut the story short, my BSNL broadband internet connection is on, more as an exception than as a rule!

Thus, I started looking for an alternative service provider. I looked at Google Guru and shortlisted two: Airtel and Tata DoCoMo, who have a presence in the area.

I contacted Airtel first through the call centre number given on their website. After all the sweet talk, right from their offices in Delhi to their branch office in Manipal, I was given an answer: Sorry, there is no connection available in your area.

Mind you, my house is just 3 kms away!

I also happened to speak to an Airtel executive who told me that the local manager was not interested in expanding the services and they lost many consumers.

A couple of months ago, I saw Tata DoCoMo’s service at a local 3-star hotel, where, thanks to the owner, I was given access to the internet in the manager’s office. The speeds were good—when compared to BSNL’s service—and I was impressed.

(But not as great as the service I had in Hyderabad in 2011-12, where I used to pay just about Rs 1,000 per month for a 10 MbPS connection, and that too, with the rare breakdowns).

So I looked up Tata DoCoMo’s website and called them up. After a three-four phone calls, I was told that they only provide service in apartment buildings where at least 80% residents agree to subscribe.

Besides, they averred, I live in an area where there don’t have any lines!

Today (5 June 2015), I put out a series of tweets regarding my grouse with BSNL (they did not respond) and how villages and small towns (#Rurban) are way out of range of the radars of these big companies (and not only telecom service providers, but by almost all major FMCG companies), who treat us villagers as guinea pigs and dump third-rate goods and services on us.

Responses from the telco giants on Twitter were immediate, followed by phone calls. Yet, I also bet my favourite Mysorepak (a very popular sweet) that I will not get a connection from either Airtel or Tata DoCoMo very soon. And, lo and behold, at the end of the day, I ended up in saving a few rupees!

“We don’t have a service there” was the common thread among the two.

Meanwhile, I plan to visit the BSNL Telephone Adalat which will be held next week, but am keeping my fingers crossed.

Footnote: Dear Mr Narendra Modi, if you happen to read this piece, let me say this: I doubt if your idea of a “Digital India” will ever take off, not at least during your stewardship of this nation as the Pradhan Sewak with such disdain for consumers.

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