Charges for mobile phone calls have gone up for many users after the telecom regulator introduced a uniform minimum call rate on Monday.
People, who usually make calls to numbers of the same carrier, saw their bills go up significantly, as much as 80 percent. Many termed the move anti-consumer interest and said it goes against the vision for Digital Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) on Monday set a flat Tk 0.45 a minute minimum charge for a local voice call. Previously, there were two minimum charges -- Tk 0.25 a minute for calls made to numbers of the same carrier (on-net) and Tk 0.60 for calls to subscribers of different mobile operator (off-net).
If a carrier charges Tk 0.45 for a call, it ends up being Tk 0.55 for the consumers after value-added tax, supplementary duty and surcharge.
Families that had been using the same carrier to keep call costs down and to take advantage of the friends and family facility offered by most operators were hit the hardest, as their off-net calls could not offset the high on-net cost.
Rifat Jahan, a homemaker of East Kazipara, had been buying 10 minutes of talk time for Tk 3.85, sometimes several times a day. On Monday, she was charged Tk 5.70.
“Suddenly, my cost of making calls has nearly doubled,” said Jahan.
Phone user Abdullah said the move went against the government's vision for a Digital Bangladesh. He claimed that carriers also removed the mandatory 10-second pulse provision, under which a subscriber was charged every sixth of a minute.
“Now, we have to pay Tk 0.55 even if we end a call after a few seconds. The flat minimum charge is anti-consumer,” said Abdullah.
Following the BTRC move, many started using mobile apps for making calls over the internet.
Grameenphone subscribers are feeling the heat the most. About 90 percent of the calls they make are on-net. The carrier is the market leader in terms of subscribers.
Subscribers of smaller carriers would benefit from the flat minimum call rate, said top officials of the BTRC.
They said the uniform rate aims to establish a level-playing field for all carriers. This would protect subscribers from bill shocks after phone number portability is enabled.
It is expected that from September 30 subscribers would be able to change their carriers without having to lose their phone number.
They said the flat minimum call rate was set to bring balance in on-net and off-net calls. The call charges would go down in most cases, they claimed.
The BTRC officials claimed that a top operator with a huge customer base was charging more than previously to render the uniform call rate move a failed one.
Md Jahurul Haque, acting chairman of the commission, said, “Through the process, the real competition will begin.”
He said even though the commission has not held any public consultation, it had studied the issue. “And there is scope to revisit this anytime if it increases the cost of customers.”
One operator even increased the off-net call rates, which was supposed to decrease, he said.
Abu Saeed Khan, senior policy fellow of Colombo-based ICT policy and regulation think-tank LIRNEasia, said, “Why should the government be so keen on increasing the tariff without improving service quality, which is substandard.
“There should not be any floor in the mobile voice or data market. The authorities should be vigilant so that a dominant operator can't abuse the market … .”
Largest carrier Grameenphone declined to comment on the new flat call rate but Robi and Banglalink said they revised their call rates, decreasing the off-net charges and increasing the on-net rate.
“Our experience over the last two days suggests that the initial confusion among customers is diminishing and they are now understanding that the new flat rate would work to their advantage,” Ekram Kabir, a vice-president of Robi said on Wednesday.
Seventy-one percent of the calls Robi subscribers make are on-net. The carrier was charging an average Tk 0.42 a minute until Monday. Banglalink had been charging an average Tk 0.39 a minute, according to the BTRC.
“It is too early to determine the exact feeling of customers. However, as of now, we understand that there are mixed feelings due to the changes,” said Taimur Rahman, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer of Banglalink.
“Nevertheless, we believe that it will really be helpful in the long run as customers no longer need to think about which network they are calling to,” he added.
The subscribers of state-owned Teletalk generate only 15 percent on-net calls. Its customers will get the most benefit from the flat minimum rate.
According to the BTRC, the country has 15.09 crore active mobile phone connections as of June. Grameenphone has 6.92 crore, Robi 4.47 crore, Banglalink 3.33 crore and Teletalk has 37.46 lakh active connections.