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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Broadband in India - Part 1: Don't buy Tata Indicom Broadband

Broadband internet access at home and SMEs in India is still in its early adopter, even though its has been almost two years since some form of broadband access became available. Some basic facts about broadband in India will explain why this is so:

1. Broadband, as the term is used in India, refers to anything which is non-dialup and non-ISDN. It has nothing to do with data rates. ISPs here routinely offer a 32kbps (yes , thats kilo *bits* per second) connection under their broadband plans.

2. Cost of Internet access is still extremely high. Even for dialup today a power user can easily expect to spend more than 1000Rs a month, as nearly all access is metered, including the phone call (local phone calls are metered in India). This, even when directly converted to dollars, is more than $20 a month. If we go by the Purchasing Power Parity (a measure of the local buying power of a currency), it comes to more than a $100 per month. And remember, this is still metered on a per-minute basis, so you can end up paying a lot more, and you have to watch the clock when online.

Broadband offerings have only recently come down to a similar level of cost. And those are again metered plans. Unlimited plans (as in limited by the number of days your account remains active), both for dialup and "always on" (a more accurate term for these so called "broadband" onnections) still cost an arm and a leg.

These two factors are enough to ensure low penetration of fast internet access in India. I just encountered an additional reason.

Two months back, I paid Rs 2000 to Tata Indicom Broadband as an installation fee for a 64kbps always-on connection. This included the modem and in-house wiring. The plan fee then was Rs 800 per month before taxes.

They took ten days to actually do the installation, which would have been not so bad had they not promised that the installation would happen within two days.

Once the connection was up and running, I was more or less satisfied with the connection. It did have a tendency to do down for a few hours once every 4-5 days, but thats not too bad by Indian IT industry standards. The good thing was that they actually gave me a static live IP (most providers in India only give a 192.168.*.* IP, or best case, a live IP with DHCP). Also, I was getting download averages of between 70-75kbps over large downloads, while I had been really expecting averages of less than 32kbps (heavily overselling bandwidth is widespread practice here, even for DSL connections).

I did have a few minor gripes at that point, but no deal-breakers:

1. They only provided an electonic statement. While in the US this is what I would have prefered, here a paper copy is essential. They actually had the nerve to ask for an additional Rs 50 per copy for providing paper billing.

2. This bill would only be sent by email to the email account (with 10MB email space!) they had provided me with the internet connection. There was no way to have this bill sent to my main email address.

3. Even though they insisted on going the electronic way for their bill, they had no mechanism for electronic payment. The payment had to be made by cheques being dropped off at specified drop boxes in the city.

4. Even though they had done a credit check and a deposit had been collected for what is called a "post-paid" connection, they bill in advance. So you need to pay the entire due amount for the month of November by the 31st of October.

As I said, inconvenient, but not deal-breakers.

And then, I decided to go on a 10-day vacation. Before leaving, I called up their customer service and told them I was not gonna be in town for 10-days. As the bill had not yet arrived for the coming month, the rep told me that it wont be a problem, and I can pay it once I get back.

I come back from Vacation, and I find my connection down. Too tired at this stage to call customer service, and accustomed till now to the periodic outages, I dont think anything is amiss until I wake up the next morning to find the connection still down. I fire up my emergency dialup connection (a great post-paid "pay as you go" dial-up scheme provided by the state-owned telecom major, BSNL, where the internet charges are billed to your telephone line, and the authentication is done via Calling Line Identification or Caller-ID). I try to login to my Tata Indicom Broadband email account to check if theres a bill pending, and get my first surprise: I cant login. The login page just reloads when I click login, without even informing me that my account is disabled.

I then call customer service, where I am curtly informed that the line has been disconnected for no payment of bill. A bill I havent seen, and now cannot see, thanks to the account being disabled. Turns out that the Bill due date is 3 days from the bill date, and theres a grace period of 1 (let me spell it out for you: O-N-E) day! After which they automatically disconnect your line and charge you Rs 250 for reconnections. All this, after charging Rs 2000 as installation charges. All this, without a single warning call from Tata Indicom (As my contact number with them is my cell number they could easily have called me up even while I was on vacation).

This really pissed me off. So I lodge a formal complaint with the rep and tell her to permanently disable my account, for which her response was "OK". I hang up.

A week after this, I finally get a call from customer service. This guy is totally unaware of any complaints that I may have registered. He informs me, finally (two weeks after the fact), that my line has been disabled due to non-payment of bill, and If i pay the bill and reconnection fee of Rs 250, they can enable it within 48 hours! (This for a company which doesnt even take minutes to disconnect a paying customer).

Oh. Meanwhile, Tata Indicom Broadband, under competitive pressure, reduced its rates for the connection I have by about a third! But only for new customers! The old customers already have paid the huge installation fee, so they are not gonna go anywhere else, and so dont deserve to be treated at par with the new potential suckers.

To cut an already long story short, I went with another provider (Airtel Broadband), which is (till now) working out well. They did the Installation for free, gave me a better rate, and it took them less than 24 hours since my first call to their sales number to get my line up and running. They also accept electronic payments, and provide paper statements. Their ordering process also seems very secure (some banks, like HSBC, should probably take a few lessons from them).

I recommend staying away from Tata Indicom broadband. They have higher prices and worse service than any of the competitors. Heck, the kind of treatment I got from them is worse than what the state-owned BSNL provides.

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wow golu, what an experience! Is this the case even in the metros?

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