Private telecom operators Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Jio have urged the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to introduce a graded reduction in Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) messages that appear as pop-up messages without getting stored in the inbox. The private telcos noted that reducing the charge of USSD messages to zero will increase the burden on the telecom sector.
USSD messaging service is predominantly used by feature phone users as it does not require the internet and uses shortcodes for making transactions, which deducts money regardless of the transaction being successful. Meanwhile, telecom operators have also asked TRAI to charge users up to 10 paise for non-disaster-related alerts to recover costs while keeping the disaster-related messages free.
The TRAI had earlier released a proposal suggesting rationalisation of USSD messages from 50 paise to zero rupees for all mobile customers to encourage digital payments in the country. “Charges of USSD service for mobile banking should be brought in phases from current 50 paise to 5-10 paise, but in case the Authority plans to reduce it to zero, it may then create a suitable mechanism for fair compensation of telcos by concerned telcos,” Airtel said in its submission to TRAI.
Airtel noted it understands the importance of financial inclusion and making USSD service charges affordable. However, it emphasised that tariffs must ensure that telcos can recover the cost of “providing such services to customers”, failing which the measure would put an additional burden on the telecom sector.
ET quoted Vodafone Idea (Vi) which noted that USSD services entail “both capex and operational costs in terms of network resources, IT/billing platforms, human resource, manual activities and upkeeping it as per regulatory and licensing norms”, noting that costs per unit would be substantial if volumes are considered. “It would be a precarious trend with huge financial implications, if a precedence is laid for mandating a service free of cost, for the other sector,” Vi said in its submission to TRAI.
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) which represents Reliance Jio Infocomm, Airtel, and Vi, noted that in case TRAI wants to make USSD-based services free, telcos should be reimbursed from banks. Last month, the regulator had noted that the present tariff per USSD session for mobile banking offered by telecom service providers (TSPs) is several times higher than the average tariff for one minute of the outgoing voice call, or one outgoing SMS.TRAI had noted that it is “of the view that in order to protect the interests of the USSD users and to promote digital financial inclusion, rationalization of USSD charges is required.”