India’s mobile industry has seen its fair share of chaos — February’s cancellation of the country’s 122 telecom licenses springs to mind — but top dog Bharti Airtel has taken things a step further with the rather extraordinary decision to close its network to incoming text messages from users of rival operators Aircel and Reliance.
The impact of the move, reported by The Economic Times, could probably not be worse as India prepares for the Diwali festival, a time when families and friends want to communicate the most.
There’s an explanation of sorts behind the situation and Airtel, which is India’s largest operator with 185.92 million subscribers, says it has been flooded by “free spam messages” from the other two, lesser mobile networks.
“They [Aircel and Reliance] are sending free SMS to our networks, which, in turn, is impacting the quality of service on our network and, therefore, the quality of service to our own customers,” an Airtel spokesperson told Economic Times.
Both of the accused deny the claim, with Reliance saying it believes that Airtel’s move is a case of the operator abusing its dominance. A spokesperson told the newspaper: “The timing of this step on the eve of Diwali reflects Bharti’s blatant disregard for the interests of millions of customers and is another instance of abuse of market position by Bharti.”
Underlying issues between the operator and Aircel date back some while. Airtel has been pursuing both of its rivals to sign agreements that would see them pay 10 pais (0.10 rupees or $0.0018) for every SMS that one of their users sends to an Airtel customer.
Aircel is against the move, which was first raised in November 2011, because “the cost for our customers would go up significantly.” The issue has since gone to the Indian Supere Court, after Aircel challenged a telecom tribunal’s decision that ruled against it.
Now a new ground for the spats has emerged and, with the general public the ultimate loser, it seems all three firms will play the blame game until common sense prevails and the blockade is lifted.
While SMS remains huge in India — to the point that the government felt compelled to restrict it when it shut down websites during recent troubles in the North of the country — the news will be a boon for mobile chat apps, like WhatsApp, which continue to grow at pace in the country.
It could well be that the operators’ latest efforts to close themselves off will once again help the mobile chat services gain greater traction among mobile users in the country.
Image via Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty