The introduction of uniform voice call rate for the mobile phone subscribers did not bode well for majority of the users. Voice calls have become pricier with the uniform floor rate at Tk 0.45 per minute and the upper limit at Tk 2.0 per minute that has come into effect from 12:01am on August 14. The new rate is forcing mobile subscribers to pay more for calls. Mobile operators, however, do not have much sympathy for the subscribers. They think confusion about the rate would soon be cleared up and the consumers would realise that the new rate would work to their advantage. And the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC) seems upbeat about the new rate: it will help establish a level-playing field for all, the regulator claims. Is it really so?
The uniform call rate has scrapped the separate rates for on-net (within the same operator) and off-net (one operator to another) calls. That means the new rate is applicable for making calls to any operator. The authorities, meanwhile, claimed that the new call rate would help remove discrimination in the market ahead of the launching of mobile network portability (MNP) service, which allows users to switch operators without changing their existing numbers. They think once MNP is launched, as is planned within a month or two, the subscribers won't need to be charged differently depending on operators and this is how introduction of uniform call rate and launching of MNP is interlinked. But whatever and however, the subscribers think the latest call rate decision didn't help their cause. Rather, it has almost doubled the floor price in the name of saving the subscribers from excessive cost as it would ultimately increase their cost of making calls. The users won't get the much-needed benefit. Besides, the BTRC did not even feel the need to conduct any public consultation before setting the minimum call rate, which has invited further public wrath.
Following the BTRC move, many started using mobile apps for making calls over the internet. Operators fear it may inevitably result in negative growth of their operating profit. The regulator, however, said that the subscribers of smaller operators would benefit from the newly introduced flat minimum call rate, but families that had been using the same operator to keep call costs down and take advantage of the friends and family package benefit offered by most of the operators, were hit the hardest, as their off-net calls failed to offset the high on-net cost. There had been two minimum charges previously -- Tk 0.25 a minute for on-net calls and Tk 0.60 for off-net calls. But now if an operator charges Tk 0.45 for a call, it ends up amounting to minimum Tk 0.55 in total after value-added tax, supplementary duty and surcharge even if a call ends within seconds.
Many termed the recent BTRC move 'anti-subscriber'. People, especially those who usually make on-net calls, saw their bills go up drastically -- as high as 80 per cent. For instance, an average subscriber from Farmgate area was buying 10 minutes of talk time for Tk 3.85, at times even more than once a day. Since introducing the new rate, he is being charged Tk 5.70. The apparently stunned user now says that his cost of making calls has nearly doubled all of a sudden. What's more, the operators removed the mandatory 10-second pulse provision, under which a user was charged every sixth of a minute.
Available data show that Grameenphone subscribers are suffering the most as about 90 per cent of the calls they make are on-net. Besides, 71 per cent and 69 per cent of the calls that the Robi and Banglalink subscribers generate respectively are on-net. Subscribers of state-owned Teletalk generate only 15 per cent on-net calls, but its customers will get the most benefit from the flat minimum call rate. So as things stand, the new rate will ultimately increase the cost of cellphone calls for majority of the customers of three major operators. According to the Mobile Phone Subscribers' Association, the country's cellphone users have to pay an additional Tk 60 billion due to the recent call rate and understandably, this will serve the interest of the operators.
The mobile subscribers had already been suffering from substandard services, while paying high charges. Now with almost doubling the floor price, the general subscribers are sure to suffer more. BTRC should have decided on the floor rate in consultation with the subscribers, which would have been more democratic, ethical and acceptable. The regulator should take the users' interest into account that also calls for improving the operators' overall service quality. In fact, there should not have any floor rate in the mobile voice or data market. Rather, the authorities concerned should stay alert so that no operator can take any undue advantage and thereby weaken the thriving telecom market. Besides, absence of a fair competition regulation among operators has prompted unfair competition in the telecom market. The government can take lesson in this regard from Norway that recently fined the country's government-owned telecom giant Telenor (which is also Grameenphone's parent company) $97 million for violating competitive regulations.
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