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Mar 15, 2021

The Consumer Protection Questions Raised by Kashmir's Internet Shutdown

Most telecom operators in J&K only sell voice/talk-time services as a “free” service along with data packs, leaving postpaid customers to buy 4G packs to access calling services during the ban on mobile internet.
Children play games on their mobile phones in a neighbourhood in Srinagar October 10, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

On February 5, 2020, the Centre restored high-speed internet in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir after a long period of 550 days. Termed as the world’s longest internet shutdown, the Indian government came under heavy criticism for shutting down the Internet in Jammu and Kashmir and denying internet access to millions of people. Recently, several international celebrities have spoken out against India’s internet-gag policy.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the internet shutdown negatively impacted people from various walks of life: businessmen, students, and healthcare workers. According to Top10VPN, a UK based firm, India’s economy incurred a loss of $2.8 billion (Rs 20,404 crore approximately) because of internet shutdowns.

Although many have speculated as to why the Internet was restored now, it is difficult to pinpoint a concrete reason for this sudden decision.

According to a December 2019 statement made by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) – a conglomerate of mobile carriers Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Reliance Industries’ Jio Infocomm – telecom operators lose Rs 2.4 crore in revenue every hour during an internet shutdown.

COAI’s former director Rajan Mathews also criticised the government for misusing internet shutdowns “to disenfranchise people of an entire geographical region.”

Also read: 4G Is Back in J&K After 18 Months, But it Can’t Compensate for What We Lost

One would assume from these statements that major telecom operators in J&K would have suffered a huge economic cost during the last one and a half years of internet shutdown in J&K.  But how did they fare? The circle-level financial data published by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) from this period paints a more nuanced picture.

The Wire analysed the circle-level revenue of major telecom operators from April-June 2019 (when 4G internet was working) to July-September 2020 (when 4G internet was shut).

 Gross revenue in crores (Rupees)

Telecom operator  Quarter 1  April to June 2019 Quarter 2 July to September 2019 (shutdown started in August) Quarter 3  October to December 2019  Quarter 4 January to March 2020 Quarter 1  April to June 2020 Quarter 2 July to September 2020
Bharti Airtel  181.16 145.86 148.47 209 222.85 233.52
BSNL 23.47 16.14 27.33 19.59 30.77 34.30
Vodafone-Idea 28.03 20.45 18.34 19.94 18.70 19.51
Reliance Jio 158.38 160.31 152.85 163.43 175.28 184.28

Source: TRAI

Adjusted gross revenue in crores (Rupees)

Telecom operator  Quarter 1  April to June 2019 Quarter 2 July to September 2019 (shutdown started in August) Quarter 3  October to December 2019  Quarter 4  January to March 2020 Quarter 1  April to June 2020 Quarter 2 July to September 2020
Bharti Airtel  127.45 100.36 82.45 14 165.86 168.61
BSNL 20.72 13.57 26.59 16.06 29.73 29.78
Vodafone-Idea 16.35 5.89 7.76 5.32 8.85 10.29
Reliance Jio 128.29 134.17 134.82 139.07 152.59 157.74

While the revenue indicated in the table consists of more components than the revenue earned solely from subscribers, a cursory look at this data shows that there was indeed a slump in the revenues of telecom operators in Quarter 2 of 2019 (July-September). A complete communication blockade was implemented in the same quarter. 

However, more interestingly, revenues recovered soon after and even surpassed the revenues from the pre-lockdown period. 

Timeline of services banned and re-allowed

On the night of August 4, 2019, calling services (mobile and landline) and internet services (mobile and broadband) were banned by the government. 

Calling services were restored for 40 lakh postpaid customers two months later, in October 2019. 2G internet was restored for postpaid customers in January 2020. 2G internet and calling services for prepaid customers were also restored in the same month. 

A man uses his mobile phone in the Kashmir Valley. Photo: Pracsshannt K/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

In Jammu and Kashmir, most telecom operators do not sell voice/talk-time services separately for postpaid connections. They only sell them as a “free” service along with the data packs. There was a complete ban on mobile internet for five months and during this period, postpaid customers in Jammu and Kashmir had to buy 4G data packs to access calling services. Subsequently, postpaid customers were further inconvenienced because they had to pay for 4G internet while only being able to use the Internet on 2G speeds. 

Some relief

Companies offered limited relief, although this varied. For instance, in October 2019 when the calling services were restored for postpaid customers, Bharti Airtel announced that it was waiving off postpaid rental (monthly fixed charges) during the suspended service period as a “special gesture.”

In September 2019, PTI reported that BSNL had initiated a rebate for its postpaid customers.

However, it was not just the postpaid customers who faced the brunt of these policies. While prepaid customers had the option of buying voice-only/talk-time packs, they too were forced to buy 4G packs to access 2G internet. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown forced the closure of educational institutions across India. Students started taking online classes throughout the country but the lack of high-speed internet meant that students from the erstwhile state could barely download a few PDFs, let alone take online classes. On one hand, low-speed internet made it almost impossible for the students to take online classes or exams and on the other, they had to buy 4G data packs to access low-speed 2G internet. 

Also read: India Lost $2.8 Billion Owing to Internet Shutdowns in 2020: Report

There are a number of obvious questions that arise: Firstly, why didn’t TRAI direct the operators to introduce voice-only packs (for postpaid customers) and less-expensive 2G packs in Jammu and Kashmir? Would this have been technically possible for the operators to do so? (Jio is a 4G-only network for instance). 

Secondly, why did it allow the telecom operators to sell 4G data packs when those speeds were not allowed by the government? And why were many consumers in Jammu and Kashmir coerced to pay for a service inaccessible to them?

Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), strongly believes action should be taken. 

“We were deprived of 4G internet despite paying for it for no fault of ours. We had to pay for 4G internet despite only getting 2G services. The government should have taken care of this but unfortunately, they did not take note of it. Everything was going in a very hush-hush manner. The government should have taken a call on this. We had met Lieutenant Governor G.C. Murmu at that time and we conveyed all these issues to him. We told him that the people are suffering,” Ahmad told The Wire

“The Internet is like air and water to our business and it was very difficult to keep our businesses afloat during the shutdown. It also led to joblessness – four to five lakh people lost their jobs during this period. I have seen skilled people undertaking meagre jobs just to survive,” he said.

Ahmad said that the government should have taken action during the lockdown but they failed to do so, adding that the 550-day long internet shutdown in J&K demolished the handicraft sector and led to huge job losses. 

“Handicraft exports fell by 50% during this period. People associated with the handicraft industry lost jobs and almost 50,000 people got affected.”

A shikara in Kashmir’s Dale Lake. Photo: AzmanJumat/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Compensation for Internet shutdown 

On the issue of compensation, he said that the government should take a call. 

“I don’t know who should compensate for these losses. The people have paid huge money to these telecom operators without getting any services. They must be compensated.” 

In October 2019, a Right to Information application was filed by this journalist with TRAI, seeking information on the total number of mobile phone connections suspended in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019. 

The same application also sought information on whether the consumers will be compensated for the services which they had already paid for but could not use because of the internet shutdown. However, the telecom regulatory authority claimed that they did not have this information.

It is noteworthy to mention that TRAI has previously cracked down on telecom operators in the interest of consumers. In 2015, it asked the telecom operators to compensate their consumers for call drops. Yet the consumers in Jammu and Kashmir appear to have suffered without any protection from the regulatory authority. 

Also read: A Year Without High-Speed Internet Has Been a Nightmare for J&K’s Entrepreneurs

Experts say that TRAI and the Department of Telecommunications could have directed telecom operators to provide voice-only packs and 2G data packs to the customers in Jammu and Kashmir. To some extent, it might have alleviated the loss caused by the world’s longest internet shutdown. However, no such direction came from the authorities and the question of compensating the customers still remains. 

The Wire contacted Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who is the chairperson of the Parliament Standing Committee on Information Technology. He made it clear that he was replying in his personal capacity because the parliamentary panel had not discussed the issue, but said that customers should be compensated for the period when 4G was unavailable.

I do feel that the government should have directed the telecom operators to introduce less-expensive 2G packs for their customers, and that even now they should mandate refunds for the period that 4G was unavailable because of government action. That is a personal view,” Tharoor said.

The Wire sent a questionnaire to Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio, asking them to comment on reports of customers continuing to pay 4G rates to access calling services (from August- October 2020, when only calls/SMS-es were permitted) and also paying 4G rates when only 2G internet services were available (from January 2020 to January 2021, after which 4G has now been restored). No response was received until the time of going to press. This story will be updated if and when a response is received.

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