India's Telecom Dinosaurs

by Ivor Soans    Feb 04, 2005

If you travel across Mumbai, there’s one ad campaign you won’t fail to notice–especially if you’re among those inclined towards technology. The hoardings proclaim that MTNL, the government-owned telecom utility in Mumbai, now offers 256 Kbps broadband Internet connectivity at tariffs hitherto available only in your dreams.

Like many others, I too made my way to my local telephone exchange a few weeks ago, only to learn that all MTNL was offering currently was registration forms–the actual connections would be provided months later. The reason behind the delay wasn’t huge demand, but the fact that the so-called ‘launch’ and the media campaign are a mere eyewash. According to some sources, back-end equipment still hasn’t reached exchanges, so there’s no question of connections being provided.

Incidentally, MTNL claims that some telephone exchanges in Mumbai are already offering these services. As far as I know, that’s another half-truth–these telephone exchanges are the same ones where ADSL broadband trials have been on for some time now.

My experience was from an individual’s perspective, but the treatment is the same even if you’re a corporate user. The government-run telcos certainly don’t discriminate when it comes to treating customers like trash. Take another example: I recently read a rant by an IT Head of an international school based in a hill station in the state of Uttaranchal. This school has over 4 Mbps of connectivity through BSNL and is one of their largest customers in that area–you might think that’s reason enough for BSNL to treat them as a valuable corporate customer.

But BSNL remains BSNL–this IT Head writes of a recent incident when their Internet connection went down. Unable to get BSNL on the line, he called VSNL (to whose gateway they connected) to see if they could help. A bit later, around 6:30 pm, VSNL officials called back and said that they had gotten hold of the BSNL officer at the local telephone exchange but he said that he would sort it out only the next morning. What this IT Head was peeved about was the fact that this BSNL official lives on the exchange premises, just one floor above the room to which he would have had to walk, unlock and switch the power off on one modem!

That’s customer service for you, a la BSNL and MTNL. Incidentally, not everyone in these organizations is sloth-ridden. At the top levels of both BSNL and MTNL are officers who work very hard and are extremely market-savvy. I know quite a few personally and I know they care, not only about customers, but also about the future of the companies they work in. However, the middle and lower levels revel in red tape and sheer insensitivity.

I now take all BSNL and MTNL claims with a large pinch of salt and I wouldn’t trust any mission-critical task to their people or their networks. In cities like Mumbai MTNL is already paying the price for its level of service–enterprise users are leaving by the droves and if you go any of their so-called ‘Quick Customer Service Centers’ you’ll discover that even most individual customers come there simply to submit telephone surrender forms.

So, is there any hope for BSNL and MTNL? I don’t know–quite a few in India have no choice, but enterprise users do, and they are already voting with their feet. Unfortunately for BSNL and MTNL, it’s thanks to enterprise users that they report healthy profits. The sun is setting on the era of ignoring enterprise users and still ending up with profits. Today, if you tie enterprise users in red tape, you ll end up with red ink on your books. But BSNL and MTNL still don’t seem to have grasped this simple lesson.

Tags: red tapism