Wednesday, March 9, 2011

3G in Mumbai - high prices sour the deal

Airtel finally rolled out their 3G services in Mumbai yesterday and a friend reported getting Vodafone 3G on his cell too. For most of us here, it has been a long and frustrating wait - BSNL users have been enjoying the facility across the country for the last 2-3 months. I think we  have been almost the large major city to get 3G. Of course, Reliance and MTNL have both offered it here for some time.

I have spent today comparing the tariffs of all major operators, and I am frankly a little disappointed. I did not expect unlimited plans given the amount of licence fees that operators have  paid for the spectrum. But I did expect better rates than what are on offer today.

There is a fair degree of parity in the pricing and plans offered by the operators in Mumbai so I am making some broad observations across the board. I do not have data for Vodafone as they are yet to put up the Mumbai tariffs on their website

1) Dearth of attractive prepaid packs

In an earlier post this month, I had mentioned that long duration (6 month/annual) prepaid plans provide a lot of economy in use, and allow you to plan and fine-tune your usage. Well, all the operators have prepaid 3G packs but they are both low volume and low validity (1 day to 30 days). And therefore they are not really economical - the best rate you will get is around Re 1 per MB. MTNL offers slightly better rates, but still with low validity/low volume. Clearly the packs are being offered only as samplers to give people a taste of 3G  rather than as a serious long term subscription option. Hopefully, this will change down the line.

2) Higher data usage is not discounted for postpaid users

Usually, if you are a heavy data user/subscribed to a high volume plan, additional data that you consume will be at a slightly lower rate. Have a look at the MTNL Triband Tariffs. For example, if I am on the MTNL plan Trib-49, I pay Rs. 49 and get 200 MB free per month - I have to pay for additional data usage at the rate of Re.1 per MB. But if I am on a high volume plan DSL-1199 where I get 7GB free data, I pay only 40 paise per MB for additional data usage. No such concession is made for 3G postpaid users. The overage charges are standard irrespective of usage. They vary across networks - for Reliance, the best rate is Rs. 10 per MB and for Airtel it is Rs. 7.5 per MB. What this also means, shockingly, is that post-paid users will be penalised steeply for any additional data consumption. MTNL does best on this front, offering a flat rate of 1p/10KB or Re.1 per MB for additional data consumption.

3) No distinction between tethering and non-tethering

It may be early days to think of this, but I notice that the plans offered by operators make no distinction between tethered use (as a modem to your PC) and untethered use (only on your phone or mobile device). Typically, I would expect the rate to be lower if you only plan to use 3G on your phone.

Also we have not yet seen attractive data plans for smartphones like iPhone and Blackberry or for tablets.

4) Fine print on roaming charges?

MTNL has clearly stated that rates are standard across own and roaming networks. Airtel on the other hand, says in the terms and conditions that roaming is possible only on the Airtel network and even then 'Free data usage available in 3G data pack not applicable while roaming. Browsing charges of 30p/20KB will apply." That means that on roaming you would pay upto Rs. 15 per MB.


5) Plans are not download friendly
When you see the tariffs and data volume caps, you realise that the 3G plans are simply not designed for people to freely download music, apps or videos on their phones. Of course, you could argue that a 3G connection is a secondary connection and there are reasonably priced broadband plans for heavy downloading. But smartphone platforms today encourage us to download apps - the experience cannot be delivered without apps. Data rates are currently so prohibitive, that you would have to think before downloading. 


My wishlist for 3G would be;
a) Decent prepaid packs of 20-30 GB with at least 6 month validity, with a pricing of Rs.100-150 per GB
b) Give the option of free/unlimited GPRS connectivity to all 3G post-paid customers, once their allotted volume of 3G download expires. Currently Airtel offers this but only on one Flexi-Shield plan. I would like to see this as a default across all the plans.
c) Operators should have tie-ups for all circles where they do not have the 3G licence to give seamless connectivity at the same rate. I thought that was the point of making us wait for so long - to get those tie ups in place! 
d) The current representation of data (Paise per KB) is extremely confusing to the customer, and there is no standardisation at all. Reliance says 2p/1 KB, Airtel says 15p/20KB etc. It's a headache for me as a consumer to compare them. I think TRAI should mandate that all operators display a standard rate per MB. That would make life easy for all of us.
e) Subscription products : The Indian telecom market continues to be closely controlled by the operator. I believe that operators can choose to offer us certain 3G services at subsidised rates through the walled garden/ VAS platform - streaming video, live TV etc. I think that such services should be made available on a subscription basis so that I can sample the best of 3G without paying a bomb as data charge. Cricket on mobile would be such a hit! 


I hope at least some of these get implemented in the days to come. 


I will be out for the next 4 days without access to mail, so I apologise in advance for not responding to your comments. Will be back with more posts next week!