WOULD you like to pay for a phone system that is almost as expensive, if not more, than cellular phones but will only give you mobility within a radius of five kilometres? More so, when the system will not provide you basic voice clarity, leave alone any value addition?
If the answer to these questions is 'NO', then read on. In our last issue (Outlook, May 21), we carried out a detailed investigation into Wireless in Local Loop (WLL) technology and the role of DOT in brokering the deal with Qualcomm, the US-based company that will provide the basic system for wireless telephony. Some of the findings have been, startling. A short recap:
a) There exists an unholy alliance between some DOT officials and Qualcomm with the latter doling out favours in the form of handsome consultancies, jobs and rentals. An ex-senior deputy director-general, S. Muthuswamy, is a consultant to Qualcomm. Samir Lalwani, the son of Ramesh Lalwani, another deputy director-general, is employed by the Delhi office of Qualcomm. His house is rented by Fibcom, a licensee of Qualcomm's CDMA technology. Runu Ghosh is another signatory to the Qualcomm deal;
b) The much-touted technology has failed in consumer satisfaction surveys in Korea, the only country, other than the US, where this technology is in commercial operation;
c) No competitive bidding was held, with the result that a possibly substandard system was installed;
d) Even after repeated tests, the system has failed to measure up to the standards set by the DoT's own Technical Engineering Centre.
Outlook has documentary evidence to corroborate the above.
But MTNL seems to be oblivious to all this and advertised its grand entry into the wireless era in New Delhi on May 16. "MTNL has settled for the WLL technology developed by Qualcomm to modernise and strengthen its network...the technology would supplement the existing cable network, making the job easier for the department," said S. Rajagopalan, chairman and managing director MTNL. Yes, the wireless phone system is independent and immune to cable breakdown. There will be less hassle shifting the phone and the numbers need not be changed. It certainly means less work for the department. It also means more revenues. Subscribers will pay a registration deposit of Rs 25,000 which will bear interest as per departmental rules till the phone is installed. Subsequently, it will remain with MTNL as non-interest bearing security deposit.
But what is in this system for the subscribers? Will the system provide better quality of service? This is highly dubious, considering that the Qualcomm system has been found lacking by DOT's own Technical Engineering Centre on not one or two but as many as 25 to 30 parameters. Rajagopalan, however, still wants "to test the new technology on an experimental basis". The guinea pig is, of course, the subscriber.
Worse still, MTNL is playing with words to f safeguard and protect itself. For fixed wireless service, the MTNL advertisement talks of provisioning within a radius of 20 km from Bhikaji Cama Place in New Delhi. But it plays safe by adding that this is subject to technical feasibility. For the portable wireless, the coverage is subject to "usual radio frequency limitations". The customers deserve more clarity and less ambiguity than is being offered.
The fact is, portable wireless service will not have an effective radio coverage for a radius of more than 7.5 to 12 km from Bhikaji Cama Place. In addition, roaming is possible only within a radius of 5 km. In this day of cellular telephony and seamless roaming, do customers need this restrictive facility?
One argument is that this portable service will be cheaper in that there are no airtime charges. Instead, the system is integrated with the regular fixed phone network and the tariff will be a flat Rs 1.40 per three minutes. But will the system give a real price advantage to the customer? Hardly. The security deposit is as high as Rs 25,000. Then there is a monthly rental of Rs 1,000 for portable wireless. Even in cellular phones, the security deposit is as low as Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 and the monthly rental is around Rs 160. Why should customers then pay such a high security deposit and monthly rental? And if you use the cellphone judiciously, you can end up paying airtime charges of Rs 1,000 or so, with far greater roaming freedom.
Even convenience is not an advantage the wireless system will provide the customer. The existing phone instruments will have to be replaced by Qualcomm phones which are compatible with the new system. This means training and reorientation of customers to use the new system. Besides, the system does not have some basic features like, say, a dynamic STD lock facility: that leaves the system open to misuse. Moreover, other basic facilities like conference calling, abbreviated dialling, waiting facility of basic telephony today are missing. How can MTNL then tout the system as an advancement in basic telephony? Why should the customer be offered a system and be asked to pay money only to discover that the system doesn't perform?
Repeated attempts by Outlook to contact MTNL and get an answer to these questions have failed to elicit any response. MTNL obviously has its reasons for launching a system that is technically suspect. But surely the public has a right to know these reasons?