Building Trust and Empowering Consumers: A Case for Broadband Labels in India

Communication Today, June 07, 2024 

By Krishaank Jugiani

India is swiftly adopting digital transformation in an era where digital connectivity is viewed as a fundamental right, placing significant emphasis on service quality. Yet, despite technological advancements and intense competition in the broadband sector, quality has largely remained a disputed issue. Consumers are now demanding better transparency, services and improved customer experiences from broadband providers, bringing discussions around Quality of Service (QoS) and Quality of Experience (QoE) to the forefront.

While QoS encompasses technical metrics such as latency, bandwidth, and reliability, QoE is centred on overall consumer satisfaction, including ease of use and service consistency. Improving these aspects requires not just technological advancements but also a robust framework for increased transparency and accountability.

The Current Landscape in India

India’s broadband landscape is a labyrinth of service providers, plans, and pricing structures, often leaving consumers bewildered and unable to make informed decisions about their internet services. A 2015 study on Mobile Internet Service in India: Quality of Service, conducted by CUTS, highlighted a significant lack of consumer awareness regarding QoS standards set by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). In Rajasthan, for example, only 1% of respondents were aware of these standards, though the majority expressed a keen interest in learning more. This knowledge gap underscores the urgent need for accessible and comprehensible information for consumers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that situation is unlikely to have improved significantly, despite the passage of time.

The perception of Indian consumers towards the QoS of their mobile internet services is also not good. Many consumers grumble about broadband speeds and download limits. For example, a recent survey found that 56% of consumers reported connection disruptions or lower speeds than promised, and 39% noted that the speed they received was much lower than what they were paying for.

In its Consultation Paper on QoS standards, released on 18 th August, 2023, TRAI also acknowledged that despite advancements in mobile telecommunications and performance management tools, consumer QoE has not improved as expected. Issues such as call drops, call muting, and low data throughput persist even with widespread 4G coverage and the rollout of 5G. TRAI emphasised that customer requirements and satisfaction should be key factors in introducing new services, setting standards, and designing networks.

Typically, Indian consumers are informed only about potential maximum speeds and data usage limits when selecting a broadband service. Terms like “fast” or “hi-speed” are used without detailing aspects such as minimum speed, latency, bandwidth, and potential congestion. The market is rife with speed claims by different players, with disputes over testing methods and results. Consumers lack the information and tools to compare service providers effectively, resulting in uninformed decision-making. Hence, there is no doubt that consumers deserve explicit, easy-to-understand, and truthful details about pricing, performance, and other metrics for the services they avail.

The Promise of Broadband Labels: A Model for Transparency

The United States has pioneered the concept of broadband “nutrition” labels, mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which came into effect recently in April 2024. These labels provide consumers with essential information about broadband prices, introductory rates, data allowances, and speeds at the point of sale. This initiative, mandatory for all standalone home or fixed internet services and mobile broadband plans, exemplifies a proactive approach to consumer rights and service transparency. Countries such as Singapore and the UK have also implemented efficient mechanisms mandating broadband service operators to provide comprehensive information to subscribers through their websites.

Implementing broadband labels in India could revolutionise the consumer experience by providing straightforward, standardised information. Such labels would empower consumers to make informed decisions, fostering trust and confidence in internet service providers (ISPs). This transparency can lead to increased brand loyalty and customer satisfaction, benefiting both consumers and ISPs. Furthermore, public reporting of these metrics would enable consumers to compare services effectively, promoting a more competitive market environment. Effectively, this would mean giving power back to the consumers.

The US experience with broadband labels provides valuable insights for India. In its ‘report and order and further notice of proposed rulemaking in the matter of Empowering Broadband Consumers through Transparency’, FCC acknowledged concerns regarding the comprehensiveness of the labels and potential confusion among consumers. However, it emphasised that the benefits of increased transparency and customer trust outweigh these challenges, and the initiative is expected to continue to evolve and improve.

TRAI can draw valuable lessons from the FCC’s approach and apply similar strategies to improve its internet service landscape. While TRAI has previously considered similar recommendations in its Consultation Paper on Data Speed under Wireless Broadband Plans, these ideas need to be revisited and implemented for the greater good.

The Path Forward for India

To effectively implement broadband labels, India must ensure comprehensive and standardised QoS information, including minimum speeds, speed variations, service limits, and pricing. These labels should be mandatory for ISPs, ensuring transparency and empowering consumers. Enforcing rules against misleading advertisements and emphasising accountability will further enhance consumer trust and promote transparency in the broadband industry. The regulator could design them in consultation with credible consumer groups and the design could be improved with experience and feedback from consumers.

Educating consumers about QoS standards and the importance of these labels is also crucial. TRAI should take proactive steps to disseminate this information widely, ensuring that consumers are well-informed about their rights and the standards they should expect from their service providers. An informed consumer base is more likely to demand high-quality service, prompting internet companies to enhance their offerings. This would create feedback loop leading to those service providers innovating constantly winning customer loyalty.

By focusing on transparency, consumer education, and accountability, India can ensure quality internet services, paving the way for a digitally empowered society. With proactive policies and consumer-centric strategies, India’s future in internet can be both connected and consumer-aligned, creating a more transparent, competitive, and consumer-friendly market for all stakeholders.

The author works for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

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