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May 28, 1999
A K Bhatnagar is all set to change the rules of the ISP game.
The Delhi based chief general manager of the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited has come up with a plan to offer a telephone connection "free" with every subscription to MTNL's Internet service.
MTNL used to be a government monopoly in the basic telephony segment for the two metros in Bombay and New Delhi. Despite deregulation of the market, MTNL remains the overwhelmingly player in the two cities.
Obviously private ISPs have been making pre-emptive noises against MTNL bundling 'free' phone lines with its Internet accounts.
However, this time Bhatnagar is very optimistic for MTNL.
He told Rediff, "In Delhi, whosoever uses an Internet connection definitely needs the telephone for his regular voice calls too once he is logged in. I thought of bundling the two together and offering a telephone connection at a nominal or no cost."
When asked to elaborate on how he thought of this scheme a hesitant Bhatnagar tried to shrug it off saying, "Well, I have a head on my shoulders!"
Bhatnagar, who is due for retirement soon, has seen tough times in his career. In his earlier posting he was the chief general manager of Madhya Pradesh, the first state to have private basic telephony service providers.
"We had to face a lot of challenges there and constantly do a lot of experimentation to keep up with competition from the private sector," Bhatnagar reveals.
That must explain his innovative schemes and ideas aimed at increasing MTNL's share in the ISP market.
Bhatnagar, who assumed office last month, assured that the telephone line that would be provided by MTNL could be used for regular voice calls too.
MTNL would also provide a telephone instrument with the line. "The telephone line provided can be used for any purpose, voice or data. I plan to give local non-STD access to subscribers on that line. But they can opt for STD access if they wish so at a later stage," he explains.
The rationale behind the move is that customers would use one connection as a voice line and the second line as a dedicated data line. In turn, MTNL would get increased billings from both the lines, in addition to rentals charged for both the lines.
Bhatnagar hopes that the number of hours of usage of Internet will go up as subscribers will surf the Net for longer duration without disconnecting voluntarily or through the call-waiting mode that automatically logs out a user from the Net on receiving an incoming call.
He rules out possibility of customers opting for the scheme the first time and then migrating to rival ISPs.
"I don't think our customers would want to do that as they will not get any obvious benefit from such a movie," he claims.
Such a scheme is, however, sure to raise the hackles among private ISPs. A few months ago the Internet and Service Providers' Association of India examined if a move could be made against MTNL under Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act.
The ISPAI had alleged that MTNL was unfairly delaying providing telephone access lines to private ISPs.
Bhatnagar is emphatic that the facility would not amount to unfair trade practice by MTNL. He is optimistic that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India too would not have any objections to the scheme.
"TRAI has been sounded out on this scheme. I don't think they will reject it. It is not an unfair practice. I am only offering to bundle a telephone line with my Internet services and bundling is permitted. It's not like I am giving the telephone line free. The customer would have to pay rentals and his monthly bills for that line," he said.
Sources in MTNL are, however, confident that the TRAI would "definitely" approve of the scheme.
Bhatnagar is a one-man army. "It is not a corporate decision. It is my own idea. It is not finalised yet but I don't see any obstacles in implementing the scheme," he says.
He is confident that an approval from the MTNL Chairman and Managing Director S Rajagopalan or the Department of Telecommunications would not be necessary.
The implications of this would be that providing such a scheme to subscribers would be left to the discretion of the corporate office in Bombay.
When Rediff contacted MTNL officials in Bombay, most officials denied existence of such a scheme. Some even alleged that any such scheme would not be permitted at all as it is against the rules laid down by DoT and TRAI.
Prashant Pande, deputy general manager, Internet services, told this reporter that "To my knowledge I do not know of any such scheme. I am in charge of providing Internet access to subscribers but I have not heard of any such scheme. Up to my level I am not directly aware of this."
G V R S Kumar, deputy general manager, lease and circuits, MTNL (Bombay), also denied knowledge of such a scheme. "I am not aware of this. If any order has been passed about this it has not reached me yet," he said.
Bhatnagar has a ready explanation for this. "It's a move on my part. It is not a corporate decision. But I expect it to really catch on with our subscribers. If it catches fire here then the Bombay office may implement it too," he said.
MTNL started its ISP operations in February this year and has a subscriber base of about 4,000 connections in Delhi and about 6,000 in Bombay.
Bhatnagar, however, refuses to estimate the rise in the subscriber base with the implementation of such a scheme.
MTNL is, however, not expanding its subscriber base much now as it wants to maintain a good subscriber-line ratio to provide faster and more reliable access to the Net.
It is the process of laying about 20,000 new access lines in Bombay and Delhi. Bhatnagar estimates that it would take another two weeks at the least for this. He hopes to have his scheme ready by then, in time for the flood of new customers.
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