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All you want to know about Reliance Jio’s spat with Bharti Airtel and others

20 September, 2016

Ever since billionaire Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) launched 4G telecom network, Reliance Jio, on 5 September, its users have reportedly been facing call drops while making voice calls to non-Jio networks including those of Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular, Vodafone India and state-run BSNL.

This has led to a tiff between RIL and the existing operators, with the new player accusing the others of not providing it enough interconnect points needed to put calls through. Here is all that you should know about why this is happening and what is Jio doing about it.

How bad is the call drop problem for Jio users?

On 1 September, while launching Jio’s services, Ambani had said that even during the pre-launch trial phase, the limited number of users the network had were finding it hard to make or receive calls from other networks. At the time, he had said that more than 5 crore calls had failed to go through. Last week the company said in a press release that the number of failed calls had gone up to 2 crore a day. This, even after Airtel said that it had provided more such points to Jio.  

The other companies are contesting RIL’s claims, saying that it is blaming them for shortcomings in its network. RIL has responded by saying that there have been no call drops for Jio-to-Jio calls. RIL has also said that the additional interconnection points proposed to be released by Airtel will still only suffice for a fourth of the traffic flow between the two networks.

What exactly are interconnect points?

Simply put, interconnection refers to the physical link between the equipment of different carriers. This allows the subscribers of one carrier to make calls to those of another. The lower the number of interconnection points between two networks, the tougher it becomes to route calls between them.

So, why are the existing telecom operators not willing to provide the adequate numbers of interconnect points to Jio?

Before we answer this question, we need to understand the concept of an interconnection usage charge. An interconnection usage charge (IUC) is one that a telecom operator has to pay another, if a call originating on its network terminates on the other’s network. So, if a Jio subscriber makes a call to an Airtel subscriber, the former has to pay an interconnection charge to the latter for using its network. Jio will, of course, recover these charges from its consumers.  

Now, existing operators reportedly say that they simply do not have the network capacity or the financial muscle to terminate the huge volumes of data coming in from Jio’s network.

On 7 September, The Economic Times cited a letter written by the Cellular Operators Association of India to the Prime Minister’s Office as saying that “unloading tsunamis of asymmetric incoming voice traffic from a (potential) 100 million Reliance Jio customers can lead to the weighted average voice realisation of existing operators plunging from 30-40 paise per voice minute to 22-25 paise per voice minute or even lower”.

The lobby group representing the existing GSM operators said that although the incoming-outgoing ratio of traffic is typically 1:1, in case of Jio it had been 10:1 in its testing phase, and was likely to go up to 15:1 once the network achieves its target of a 100 million consumers.

But haven’t the existing operators already agreed to augment the interconnection capacity?

News reports suggest that the operators have indeed done so, but RIL says that the increased numbers are unlikely to suffice. In fact, a Press Trust of India report said that RIL has already made a payment of an unspecified amount to Bharti Airtel to set up more interconnection points. The report cited Airtel as saying that it will triple the number of interconnection points that should suffice a user base of at least 15 million. This has meant that the impasse has continued ever since Jio services began.

What is the regulator doing about the whole issue?

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has reportedly told the sparring operators to resolve the matter among themselves; else it will take a call on the matter. The framework for the interconnection regime is managed by the TRAI and is reviewed from time to time. In fact, even as this spat plays out, the TRAI is out with a consultation paper on reviewing interconnection charges. On 19 September, both sides submitted traffic data to the TRAI as part of its consultation process, although it is unlikely to have any bearing on the interconnection dispute.

Are other operators also blocking portability of numbers to Jio?

Well, that’s what RIL claims. In its latest salvo, the company has alleged that Airtel is denying requests for mobile number portability (MNP), which allows users to move their existing number to the new network when they shift from one to the other. RIL alleges that Airtel is blocking MNP requests “on baseless and unsubstantiated” grounds and that this is “anti-competitive behaviour”. There is, however, no independent word on this.

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All you want to know about Reliance Jio’s spat with Bharti Airtel and others

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