Telcos unhappy with Trai's recommendation of independent body for consumer complaints

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has issued recommendations for complaints/grievance redressal in the telecom sector. These recommendations are based on a consultation paper that was issued on the same.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has issued recommendations for complaints/grievance redressal in the telecom sector. These recommendations are based on a consultation paper that was issued on the same.

Trai's findings lead them to conclude that the establishment of an independent ombudsman to oversee consumer/grievance redressal is necessary for fair and impartial handling of complaints. Telecom Service Providers (TSP), however, are not very happy with the recommendation, reports Medianama.

The problem, according to Trai, is that over 10 million complaints are filed with TSPs every quarter. These issues are resolved on time and in-line with Trai guidelines issues in 2008, but, independent consumer groups allege that these issues are not resolved satisfactorily.

Existing redressal mechanism

Currently, telecom related redressals are addressed in a two-tiered manner. The first stage is contacting the TSP directly and having its complaints department resolve the issue. If the consumer is still not satisfied, the case can be taken to the relevant appellate authority.

While TSPs are adhering to the original Trai guidelines, consumer protection groups argue that TSPs are hastening the process and inadequately dealing with the issue. A lack of transparency in the process means that consumers are left in the lurch. Worse still, few consumers seem to be aware of the presence of an appellate authority.

Looking at data submitted by the TSPs themselves, Trai concludes that the appellate authority mechanism isn't working. This is because in many circles, the usage of the appellate authority is almost zero.

At the same time, Trai believes that the general sentiment is that of dissatisfaction with the TSPs handling of disputes. This is why Trai is recommending the establishment of an independent ombudsman to deal with disputes.

TSP opposition

TSPs are opposed to this move and claim that existing mechanisms are adequate. They also attempted to sideline the recommendations by saying that Trai has no legal standing when it comes to the setting up of an ombudsman.

TSPs also argue that they primarily deal with technical issues rather than monetary ones. Any monetary issues also involve very small sums. This makes them different from banks and financial institutions, and thus, they don't require an ombudsman, argue the telcos.

Trai admits that the first stage of redressal, wherein a TSP's established complaints department deals with customer issues, is working perfectly. The Authority does also believe that the second stage is not working.

The underlying issue

Trai argues that the underlying issue is one of transparency and accountability. The lack of awareness and transparency has eroded consumer confidence, says Trai.

Since the redressal mechanism is handled by TSPs themselves, Trai belives that this is not right.

"The Authority believes that for any consumer redressal mechanism to be successful, it should not only be fair and transparent; but also appear to be so," reads the document. "No person can be a judge in a case in which they have na interest," adds Trai.

The solution

Trai recommends a 3-stage solution to the redressal problem.

The first stage will remain the same as the existing one. TSPs will, at their discretion, deal with consumer complaints as best they can. This is because they are best equipped to deal with most existing issues. Trai does add that the process will need to be more transparent.

Electronic means such as an online tracking process are best, says Trai. Methods of reporting issues should also be enhanced and support electronic means like a website, email or app.

If a consumer is not satisfied with the TSPs handling of the case, he can take it to the second level which is the Consumer Grievance Redressal Forum (CGRF).

The CGRF is to be a mediator and a fact-finder, says Trai. Its job will be to mediate between the TSP and customer and also to verify facts. The CGRF will have the authority and freedom to seek outside help with regards to clarification, dealing with technical issues, etc. It will also be required to submit a report on the result of its intervention, whether successful or not.

Only if the CGRF also fails to resolve the dispute will it be sent to the ombudsman for resolution. Trai recommends that the ombudsman have the authority to penalise a TSP as necessary and that his decision will be final and binding. This ombudsman will be independent with no affiliation to either the TSP or the consumers involved.

It's been suggested that the funding for the ombudsman come from licensing fees charged to TSPs and/or include government funding.

Trai believes that this will be the best way to go about addressing consumer complaints and grievances in the telecom space.

The entire consultation paper and Trai's recommendations can be found here (PDF).

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