Mobile Subscribers Will Vote With Their Handsets, err… Wallets

I recently inquired with my mobile network operator how I could opt for one of their newly announced per second billing plans – assuming, of course, that I’d find one of them suitable for my mobile phone usage patterns (click here to learn why a blind choice of  a per second billing plan is not a good idea).

I was surprised to learn that their PSB plans were available only for prepaid / PAYG subscribers. Since I had a contract, they told me that I wasn’t eligible for PSB. This came as a bit of surprise. While I knew from my experience abroad that subscribers had to specifically opt in for per second billing, I’d generally found them to be available for the asking.  (I’m not sure if restricting PSB plans to only a segment of the subscriber base – albeit a large one considering a huge majority of India uses prepaid plans – is not an unfair trade practice or one that every other MNO has resorted to. But I digress). 

Prompted by this experience, I was keen on figuring out if there were any more suprises in store for subscribers in the way they perceived per second billing plans versus how MNOs were offering them. For example, given all the buzz around how per second billing woud lower calling costs, subscribers might be led to believe that, under a per second billing regime, they’d be charged for actual seconds of usage on whatever existing plans they had. In other words, that they’d be charged 0.5 paisa per second if they had a current per minute plan costing 30 paise per minute (aka PLAN-0M that I’d introduced in one of my recent posts).   

Those of you tuned in to the raft of per second billing plans announced by one MNO after the other in the past 3-4 weeks would know that (a) existing per minute plans continue to be billed on a per minute basis only – in other words they don’t automatically shift to per second billing (b) all per second billing plans seem to be costing 1 paisa per second, not lower or higher than that figure.

This is a serious disconnect and can ignite ire among subscribers. There have already been cases where subscribers have moved to per second billing plans, only to find their bills soar, like the one reported by the Economic Times. According to this report,  one Mr. Sahil Shah got a rude shock when he found his fortnight’s talktime getting over in just a week after switching over to a per second billing plan.

MNOs might want to educate their customers proactively about the intricacies of per second billing before this disconnect becomes more deep-rooted and there are many more disgruntled subscribers like Mr. Sahil Shah. I like IDEA Cellular’s initiatives in this context. This Top5 MNO has already started suggesting in its hoardings that its newly launched per second plan (1 paisa / second, you guessed it!) is suitable for short duration speakers whereas longer duration callers would be better off selecting its 50 paise / minute plan.

Apart from IDEA, I haven’t come across any other MNO who has taken any steps in this direction. Failure to clear the confusion might result into snowballing of customer dissatisfaction or, worse still, the regulator’s intervention – neither of which is a very pleasant prospect for MNOs. The last time that the Indian telecom regulator had supposedly weighed in on this subject, readers might recall the bloodbath that ensued in the Indian stock markets, when the stock price of Bharti, India’s largest MNO with 110 million subscribers, crashed 15% in the Bombay Stock Exchange one day after rumors surfaced – and later denied – that TRAI was going to force all MNOs to switch over to per second billing.

Before subscribers vote with their handsets, err… wallets, to avoid facing the same fate as Mr. Sahil Shah, they can express their views by expressing their views on the following poll.

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