Its was winter of 1999. JTM was one of Karnataka's best networks. Outgoing call rates were Rs.10/- per minute and incoming about Rs.3 a minute if I am not wrong. I was one of JTM's customers at that time. Slowly JTM was taken over by Bharti Teleservices. That was the birth of AirTel, a company which would grow to be one of India's most admired telcos over a period of a decade. They were the best when it came to customer services, while the nearest telcos Spice and Hutch (what is Vodafone now) were by no standards near airtel be it in infrastructure or in customer treatment. Airtel pioneered many a revolution down the line and its venture into landline services made it even more popular.
Spice's mismanagement and Hutch's troubled history of having bad networks and bad customer services only made it better and better for Airtel quite inorganically. Over the period of the last couple of years though, India and in particular Karnataka has seen a flurry of entries from many a new telco who are all vying to take a share of Airtel's pie. Airtel's troubles have started very recently, and they are compounding it by not brainstorming on the potential failures that are waiting to happen. Some of the key things about Airtel that are beginning to go wrong include and is not limited to the following:
- Peak hour call jams rendering the service useless
- Call drops that occur very often leading to frustration amongst users
- Caller tunes and the amount of agony it has been able to cause for people not really interested in them
- Ineffective blocking of Telemarketing calls and SMSes that disturb thousands of people day in and out
Of late some more laurels can rest with Airtel:
- Airtel's mismanaged and inexperienced customer service centers
- Don't care attitude that has set in among the franchisees managing these centers
- Low level executives making a mess out of technical situations which they are unable to understand or explain
- Higher level managers who do not follow up on these technical problems that people have
- Erosion of brand value due to the way these executives perform
- Airtel's arrogance in maintaining the same call rates even when competition is eating into its flesh day by day
So then why are people still putting up with Airtel or for that matter any other operator? The answer is very simple to say the least. Its because they want to retain their mobile number without changing it.
For a moment lets then dwell into the case with other operators. Spice has gone one level up in capturing the youth market with a flurry of dual sim based phones and real low calling values. They are also busy fighting with their nearest and best rival Virgin mobile. Airtel's arch rival Vodafone is now one level ahead with its famed ZooZoo advertisements addressing the core values of branding in an effective way drawing huge crowds towards the service. Not to forget to mention their Pug ads were also so adorable. Vodafone's prepaid plans now give you full talktime without any rentals or taxes even sometimes. Their low call quality and tower quality are now replenished to cover most of karnataka state.
Most of Vodafone's calls don't drop like before and their connectivity is at an all time high. Vodafone's takeover of Hutch has only fuelled their appetite for competing with anyone coming their way to maintain their customer base.
With Aircel, MTS and Uninor into the picture now along with Tata Docomo, Airtel's chances are only slimmer and slimmer day by day. Already Tata's aggressive pricing plan has forced Airtel to realize its diminishing customer base though very late, and they have also launched the same per second billing plan to save their skin. With MTS being even more aggressive at 1/2 paise per second along with Uninor, Airtel has some serious competition breathing down its neck.
On the CDMA front, Reliance and Tata are ruling the roost and will continue to do so. The only thing then comes back to how to save your mobile number. With number portability in the offing at the year end, from TRAI, at a mere 19 bucks for a switch, its now very easy to retain your number and give your old operator a boot. This only spells more bad news for Airtel who are likely to lose their coveted tag of 10 million customers on India's no more preferred network. Is it time then for Airtel, who were once FairTel, now unFairTel to go into history as a finishedTel ?
Only time will tell. And it will tell well enough.
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