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This article has been written by Shikha Sinha, pursuing a Certificate Course in Advanced Civil Litigation: Practice, Procedure and Drafting from LawSikho.

Introduction

With the increasing penetration of cellular telecom and mobile internet/broadband connections across the country, consumers are also faced with many service-related issues from the side of service providers including the problem of inflated postpaid bills over and above their fair usage of these services. While there are strict regulations in place and are enforced by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) for the protection of consumer interests, many telecom companies often violate these regulations knowingly or unknowingly. 

Consumers also, for lack of knowledge on their rights and available REMEDIAL RECOURSE find themselves faced with harassment by telecom companies over undue postpaid bills and entangled with legal notices served by their service providers. The consumers also need to follow a prescribed course of action to get relief in most of these cases, otherwise the service providers are smart enough to seek protection under the garb of norms and regulations. Most of the telecom and broadband service providers have empanelled legal teams which know how to play around with rules and regulations. Hence, consumers must be aware of their rights and prescribed procedure to seek the redressal of their grievances, otherwise following an arbitrary complaint procedure may simply leave them frustrated with the system.

Role of TRAI in curbing malpractices and framing regulations

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), as a government regulatory body was established in the year 1997 with the mandate to frame telecom regulations and enforce the protection of consumer rights and accordingly TRAI has been framing regulations and issuing directives to the telecom companies and service providers to enable the practice of fair trade and creation of a consumer-focused market. The TRAI Handbook 2015 (https://www.trai.gov.in/sites/default/files/TRAI-Handbook-2015-ENG-30092015.pdf) is a collection of many such regulations and directives. 

The TRAI handbook 2015 is an exhaustive document and covers almost all the issues under the sun including the issue of incorrect postpaid billing by telecom companies to the consumers. It lays down the following to ensure compliance of accurate billing to the consumers:

  1. A uniform code of practice has been created and prescribed for the use of telecom companies for metering and billing of fair usage of postpaid services by consumers.
  2. The service providers are required to undertake an annual audit of their metering and billing system through TRAI empanelled auditors. An audit certificate to this effect needs to be submitted to the Authority on or before July 31st of each year.

How is the annual audit used by TRAI to enforce regulations?

For any inadequacies highlighted in the audit report post the submission of audit certificate by the service providers, the service providers are also required to submit an Action Taken Report by November 15th of the same year.

There are further detailed guidelines on the nature and inclusions of audits which cover the most popular postpaid plans with maximum consumer base as well as new postpaid plans. These guidelines have been laid down thoroughly with the intention of ensuring that the service providers do not take undue advantage of any customers over and above their fair usage. The audit checklist covers inflated billing practices, roaming charges levied on customers against the published tariff, improper charging for value-added services, manner of bill delivery to customers, redressal of billing complaints and grievance redressal mechanisms including complaint handling process, etc. The annual audit system and requirement of time-bound redressal of inadequacies have helped in reducing the incidences of incorrect billing over the years but nevertheless, the issue does exist.

Standard code of practice for improving quality of service

TRAI had further issued the Quality of Service (Code of Practice for Metering and Billing Accuracy) Regulation 2006, also amended in 2013, through which a standard code of practice for metering and billing accuracy was laid down for the service providers. All the service providers are required to ensure strict compliance of these regulations and TRAI has been proactive in bringing out the implementation guidelines for these regulations from time to time. Billing-related complaints are also part of the Quality of Service (QoS) parameters. The nature of complaints received by TRAI includes various issues like alleged lapses in billing plans of service providers leading to overcharging of consumers. Grievance redressal mechanisms have been put in place for the consumers so that they can bring to the notice of authorities any issues faced by them from the service providers. 

A list of steps that is required to be followed by consumers as prescribed by TRAI to seek legal remedy for their telecom/internet postpaid and other issues is given below. Any complainant interested in seeking legal remedy for their issue must adhere to the course of action and the various timelines prescribed therein.

Guidelines to follow and steps that a consumer can take in case they receive inaccurate postpaid bills or general service complaints

Whom to approach for a complaint?

It is to be understood and noted by the consumers that TRAI does not handle individual complaints. The TRAI Act, 1997 excludes direct individual consumer complaints handled  by TRAI. Instead, as per the Telecom Consumers Protection and Redressal of Grievances Regulations, 2007,to file a complaint, the consumers need to register the complaint at the toll free Call Centre number of the service provider and obtain a complaint registration number also known as docket number. The docket number is used to confirm and identify the consumer complaint and is used in all future correspondences with the complainant.

Time limit for redressal of a complaint

The Call Centre needs to address the complaints as per the provisions in the QoS Regulation within a prescribed time. Complaints relating to faults and/or disruption of service need to be set right within 3 days and all other complaints should be dispensed within 7 days.

What to do if the call centre does not adequately redress the complaint?

The complainant, in this case, should contact the Nodal Officer of the service provider and lodge his/her grievance. The website of the service providers contains the contact details of the concerned Nodal Officers and these details are also available on TRAI’s website under the caption ‘Consumers….. Information’. The contact details can also be obtained from the Call Center used to file complaints.

Time limit for redressal of a complainant by the Nodal Officer

Complaints relating to fault or disruption of service or disconnection of service are to be redressed within three days from the date of registration of complaint. All other complaints are required to be redressed within ten days from the date of registration of complaint. If the Nodal Officer also does not resolve the grievance satisfactorily, the next step is to make an appeal to the appellate authority of the service provider in a prescribed form.

Where to find a form for making an appeal?

The Appeal Form can be obtained, free of cost, from the offices of the service provider, offices of the Nodal Officer and appellate authority, sales outlet of the service providers, or it can be downloaded from the website of the service provider or TRAI’s website.

Time limit For an appeal

The appeal has to be filed within three months of disposal of complaints by the Nodal officer. The appellate authority may not entertain any appeal filed after the expiry of three months.

Limit for disposal of an appeal by the Appellate Authority

The time limit for disposal of the appeal by the appellate authority is three months from the date of filing of the appeal.

Time limit for resolution of a billing complaint

A billing complaint (post-paid connections) is to be resolved within 4 weeks. Any relief to the nature of credit/ waiver/ adjustment, arising out of such resolution of complaint has to be made to the customer’s account within one week of resolution of the complaint.

Relief to consumer in case the fault is not rectified

In the case of basic telephone (wireline) connection, for delayed rectification of faults, the customer is entitled to rent rebate at the following rates: 

(a) Faults pending for more than 3 days and up to 7 days: Rent rebate for 7 days. 

(b) Faults pending for more than 7 days and up to 15 days: Rent rebate for 15 days. 

(c) Faults pending for more than 15 days: rent rebate for one month.

Cases of undue billing in case of requests made for termination of services

Once a request is raised for termination of service by the consumers, the service provider is required to terminate the connection within 7 days. They cannot charge consumer charges beyond the period of 7 days of request for closure made by the customer. Further, fresh bills shall be raised only after adjustment of the security deposit. The closure/ termination of service shall not be made conditional upon payment of dues/ bills/settlement of dispute. The outstanding amount of security deposits has to be refunded within 60 days of closure/ termination of service. The consumers may seek compensation at the rate of 10% per annum in case the refund is delayed by more than 60 days for the number of days exceeded beyond the timeline of 60 days.

Finally: consumer is not always the king!

If the consumer is not satisfied with the remedy offered to him/her or the redressal of his/her grievance, the next option is to approach the National Consumer Helpline for filing of the grievance. The consumers may also approach the local consumer courts to seek remedy for their grievance. Most of the time, the consumer courts are able to resolve the grievance in case of genuine harassment faced by the consumers including provision of monetary compensation against their grievance. 

However, in case of consumer negligence, the tactics may also backfire as was observed in case of a Bengaluru resident in 2017. The consumer travelled to Japan on an official trip and got her international roaming activated. But she did not opt out of data services and her mobile data remained switched on during the trip. Upon her return, she got a postpaid bill of over Rs. 2.00 Lakhs for consumption of data at international tariff rates. She approached the local consumer court with the complaint of undue charging by her service provider. However, the local consumer court ruled against the consumer in this case citing gross negligence on her part to not switch off her mobile data if she did not intend to use the same and ordered her to pay the bill amount. 

Hence, it is ultimately up to the consumers to ensure genuineness of their grievance and pursue their case in a specified manner without fretting over the harassment faced by them. A step by step pursuit of grievance redressal as per the prescribed guidelines is the key to success here.

References

  1. Court dismisses complaint against Rs 2 lakh mobile bill
    [http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/61350887.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst]
  2. The TRAI Handbook 2015 (https://www.trai.gov.in/sites/default/files/TRAI-Handbook-2015-ENG-30092015.pdf)
  3. Consumer Complaint Redressal Procedure for Telecom Complaints: India Consumer Complaints Forum  [http://www.indiaconsumercomplaints.com/consumer-complaint-redressal-procedure-telecom-complaints#.YFwsva8zbIU]
  4. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Website [www.trai.gov.in]

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