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    Volume 9 Issue 13| March 26, 2010|

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Consumers Left in the Cold

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Shamsul Arefin of Lalmatia opened his computer shop Saturday morning and tried to make an urgent phone call to a client. He was surprised to find his line blocked. He tried to call the Helpline of his PSTN service provider, RanksTel, but couldn't get through. Arefin decided it was a technical glitch, fully expecting to be reconnected soon.

But the line remained dead.
Little did Arefin know at the time that government telecom regulators had shut down RanksTel on charges of operating an illegal VOIP business. He waited anxiously all day, and had to rely on his mobile phone to make calls. He knew that many of his clients would be trying in vain to contact the shop.

"I use the Rankstel number as my sales hotline," says Arefin. "It's on my business card. Having this number switched off is a nightmare!"

Arefin is one of almost half a million PSTN (public switched telephone network) subscribers whose lines were unceremoniously snapped by the Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC). In less than a week, the government has suspended operations of four private phone operators for allegedly running unlicensed VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone services.

On March 19, BTRC officials aided by RAB forces closed the offices and the switch room of Ranks Telecom Ltd, or RanksTel. There are nine private operators running PSTN services across Bangladesh beside the state-run Bangladesh Telecom Ltd, providing service to some 1.6 million subscribers.

The 280,000 subscribers of RanksTel have been without connectivity for almost a week. PeoplesTel's 140,000, Dhaka Phone's 75,000 and WorldTel's 14,000 users have similarly been left in the lurch.

The BTRC chief Zia Ahmed said that the regulator has vowed to take stern actions against any entity including mobile phone operators to curb illegal VoIP activity. However, he said, such activity is "very low among the mobile phone companies".

Zia Ahmed said they did not want people using the services of operators who do illegal business. "If someone goes to dinner at a thief's house, and a police raid takes place, sometimes innocent people are caught up," the BTRC chief told the news conference according to reports.

Many consumer rights groups have criticised the measures that have muted more than 554,000 innocent PSTN users' dial tones. "BTRC can take action against illegal VOIP, and punish the offenders," says Quazi Faruque, Acting President of Bangladesh Consumers Association (CAB). "But what have the subscribers done wrong? They bought the connection legally. The BTRC should not let them suffer."

Faruque took issue with the BTRC chairman's statement regarding the suffering of consumers. "It is not the consumers' responsibility to find out which service providers are honest and which are not. It is the BTRC's job to know -- after all, they provided the license."

According to Faruque, CAB will submit a memorandum to the BTRC in protest against the suffering of consumers.

Legal experts have questioned whether the BTRC action is justified. "Bypassing proper channels and causing revenue loss is illegal and a punishable offence, indeed," says Barrister Raghib Chowdhury of the Supreme Court Bar. "But allegations must be specific, evidence must be gathered, and the innocent should not suffer. The Telecommunications Act 2006 does not really specify what kind of equipment should be considered illegal 'VOIP equipment'. We must keep in mind that many of the equipment such as servers can be used for legitimate purposes as well. Indiscriminate action in the name of zero tolerance might do more harm than good."

Speaking to the Star Magazine, RanksTel chairman Abdur Rouf Chowdhury denied the allegation of illegal VoIP operations. “BTRC shut down all operations of our main switching room at Novo tower and sealed the offices.” He claimed that during a 12-hour raid BTRC officials "didn't find anything illegal.”

Ranks Telecom, the second largest PSTN operator after the state-owned Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Ltd, is a member of the Rangs Group, and launched its wireless phone services on April 14, 2005. Apart from its individual subscribers, services of the telecom company at call centres, UNDP, City Bank, American Express Bank, Standard Chartered Bank offices also remained suspended due to the BTRC action.

Terming the closure unfortunate, Rouf Chowdhury pointed out that the PSTN operators only control 1% of the total phone network in the country, while the mobile phone operators cover 99%. "Even if one accepts for the sake of argument that the PSTN operators are involved in VOIP, how could we carry all the traffic with only 1% coverage? Why is the government not looking at what is happening with the 99% coverage?"

Stressing that the PSTN operators had invested upwards of Taka 2,500 crore in developing their businesses, and provided employment for around 5,000 people, Chowdhury said shutting down RanksTel's network would cause sufferings to its customers and destroy its image. "We want a neutral investigation into the matter and demand that the regulator opens the switch room immediately," said Chowdhury. "I think it may be a conspiracy to destroy these rising Bangladeshi companies."

In 2007 and 2008 BTRC raided the offices of several mobile phone operators, and fined them hundreds of crore Taka. Many PSTN operators have questioned why BTRC had earlier imposed only fines against the giant mobile operators but in the recent drives, it had shut down the operations of the PSTN operators.

"The rules must be applied even-handedly," asserts Barrister Raghib Chowdhury.

According to many experts, the problems with illegal VOIP have been made worse over the past decade due to a lack of pragmatic policy on the part of successive governments. "VOIP is an important technology that can benefit the common people by providing cheaper calls," says one IT expert on condition of anonymity. "Broadly speaking, the official policy artificially regulates the tariff and discourages competition.”

The telecom watchdog last year permitted three private international gateways (IGWs) to handle international calls generated to and from Bangladesh. But analysts say the number of calls made through illegal VoIP could not be stopped because of uncompetitive pricing. Legal international call handlers now charge 4 cents a minute, which hovers between 2.5 and 3 cents on the illegal market. Recently the parliamentary standing committee on telecommunications suggested bringing down the charge to 3 cents.

BTRC officials claimed that the call minutes of the PSTN operators dropped drastically after the raids, proving that most of their traffic was illegal. But RanksTel chairman Rouf Chowdhury challenged this claim saying, "The BTRC have shut down our switch rooms. So how can they say whether the traffic is up or down? There is no traffic!"

Responding to criticism, the telecom regulator has said it will make arrangements to reconnect around half a million PSTN land phone subscribers who were left out in the cold. "We expect that the process of switching on their call facilities will start soon," BTRC chairman Zia Ahmed told the media.

The incident has already left a bad taste in the mouth of half a million telephone subscribers. "I feel like a pawn in a tug of war," says businessman Shamsul Arefin. "As far as I know, VOIP is used to make overseas calls. Why is my local line switched off? What did I do wrong?



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