A New Player at last on the Telecom Market

By Nand Gopala

Telecom pricing has been one of the serious concerns of users on the local market. The dominant duopoly has managed to put a price on virtually anything you want to do to get into greater freedom as regards telephony and broadband access. After sales service has been one of the most problematic areas you could have come across.

They have put it in fine print to such an extent that you cannot even get away from them without having to pay your way out. Sure, the monopoly à deux has gradually tightened its grip on the consumer. It was conscious that once the market dominant role it had carved out for itself, so-to-say to protect its investment – and to which the authorities have acquiesced — would phase out, other competitors would force it to come down to competitive market levels.

It was normal that such dominance would be exerted on the passive consumer if the main bandwidth remained under the control of a single operator. This has been the case with MT providing access to all users, commercial and non-commercial. With the passing out of the monopoly period, Emtel, the second operator has spanned out its own wings. The greater autonomy of the second operator was supposed to benefit the consumer. The prohibitive prices for calls on each other have been maintained and nothing really appears to have changed in fact.

Even when the Prime Minister himself announced at a time that internet access costs would come down (given the exorbitant monopoly price practised), the duopoly allowed the peak period of end-year demand to slip out before proceeding with the announced price reduction. It had to adjust its software for which it needed time. This adjustment happens, it appears, only when prices have to be brought down, not the other way around. The authority which regulates the sector did not consider this as an abuse. So, they went on accumulating excessive profits all through until the peak period was past.

Not only was the price lowered by a paltry amount when it happened. A device was employed to make you pay the same amount as before, giving you compensation so-to-say by increasing internet speed instead. It was mere eyewash. The Authority kept silent. Finally, the speed was practically the same low thing that it had been all the time. Your monthly bill came down in another round by a paltry amount when the issue came to a crunch a second time. The hapless consumer has been wondering which god to pray to in order to get out of the clutches of the existing operators and meet a more reasonable bill and achieve decent access speed.

Government is apparently itself in a position of conflict in the matter. Since this year, it is collecting an additional 10 cents per SMS call. On this as well as the total telecom bill, the government picks up VAT. It makes sense that the higher the amount of the bill you pay to the duopoly for the service, the more the government would stand to collect by way of VAT. The “independent” regulator of the ICT sector – which decides among others on price changes — is placed in quite a delicate situation in cases like this when it comes to taking the side of the consumer.

No one has moved the authorities up to now to assert that the private telephone numbers are indeed “private” to the user as it has been decided in other countries; in Mauritius, the private telephone or mobile number of users is the property of the telecom companies. Of course, we are lagging behind and that, not only in terms of the exorbitant rates we pay for telecom “services” of all sorts, such as connection, re-connection charges, etc. We are living in a jungle in which the consumer has next to no rights in the sector and no one has acted to set the situation right while telecom companies have been minting billions of rupees as profits each year. No one has acted to decide why, just like France Telecom has come over here and “captured” our telecoms sector, our own telecom has not done the same kind of deal in other countries. We chose to tie our hands by getting into an investment deal with a foreign “partner” that has blocked any such autonomous action on our part.

It is while we are caught in this low-speed jungle of internet and duopoly telecoms that Bharat Telecom Ltd is setting foot in our space. Consumers are hoping that it might be the one that will take them out of this jungle by offering them more decent connectivity speed at reasonable costs so that we could interact with the rest of the world with the advantage that a developed economy provides to its users in terms of connectivity and costs. Bharat is an optic fibre-based technology firm. It is holding out the promise of a far higher speed of connectivity than we have been putting up with. Its costs at the basic level appear to be only a fraction of what the local providers are currently charging. Its capacity to penetrate the local market appears to be well defined with appropriate infrastructure support. It is waiting for the authorities to allow it to go forward.

Is this the light that hard pressed users have been looking forward to since so many years? Will it be the solution that will start giving Mauritius a driving edge into this field for going forward into other neighbouring markets? Maybe, we have lost too much time with the restrictions imposed by the preceding duopoly operators but it is perhaps not too late to expect an improved and better priced service than what has been the case so far. It is also perhaps finally the time for Mauritius to become ambitious in the field instead of allowing itself to remain a victim of “rent” seekers for ever. We’ll see whether Bharat does not also end up seeing its business interests coincide with those of the established operators. Will it create the difference? It’s for the future to tell. We have hopes that things could at last change for the better for both users and the country’s future.

* Published in print edition on 6 April 2012

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