Is Airtel becoming the at&t of India?

NewImage.jpg + 3G = att logo ?

I have always been a big fan (and advocate) of Airtel. Whether it was their mobile service, broadband or DTH, I always recommended Airtel to my friends and family members. And this was not because of some brand love that I had for the company. It was because Airtel had always more than exceeded my expectation in terms of Quality of Service & customer care. With superb 2G network coverage across India and virtually 100% uptime of its broadband services, Airtel was my number one choice when it came to choosing a telecommunications provider. Sadly, things are changing :(.

I was super excited when Airtel launched their 3G network in India. I had been using MTNL’s 3G service for a year and though it was offering decent 3G data speeds on my iPhone 4 & iPad 3G, it had pathetic network coverage when it came to vanilla phone calls. I always carried an Airtel number as a backup because MTNL’s network could betray you anytime. When Airtel launched their 3G services in Delhi, I ported my number to Airtel thinking that my days of carrying two mobile phones were over. Little did I know that I was totally mistaken.

Switching to Airtel did have its advantages in forms of awesome 3G data speed to boast in front of my friends, however, it brought a hell lot of nuances with it:

  • Low signal strength in areas where I used to get 5 bars all the time with Airtel’s 2G network.
  • Call drops when walking from one room to another in the same house
  • Decrease in signal strength & voice quality when holding the phone between my shoulder & ear with my shoulder as the support (typical Indian hands free operation)
  • Number unreachable
  • Switching to EDGE multiple times in a data heavy app (This is a big nuance with Skype on iPhone)

And it isn’t just me who is facing all these issues. A lot of my friends and colleagues who opted for Airtel 3G are facing these issues. In fact, I am yet to meet someone who is completely satisfied with Airtel 3G!

Now, I agree that such issues are pretty common during the launch of a new network & some benefit of doubt should be given to Airtel. But for how long? It has now been 6 months since they launched their 3G network in india and people are still facing these issues. Moreover, their customer care does not seem to care at all ! When you call them up, they just log a complaint which is automatically closed by the system after a few days without any confirmation from the customer.

A similar kind of story is building up with Airtel’s broadband services. Up until a few months back, their broadband service gave you virtually 100% of uptime. However, since the last few months, customers are facing issues like broadband not working, issue with the physical copper line, overloaded distribution boxes etc. My broadband connection stops working every other day for 30 – 60 minutes a day. I have called up the customer care several times and every time an engineer comes in and changes the modem without even considering the fact that there might be something wrong at their end. If I argue, they blame it on my Belkin wireless router.

Their DTH services aren’t any lucrative now either. When they launched their standard definition DTH boxes, they probably had the most advanced DVB S2 based DTH boxes in the market. It has been a decline ever since then. They were late to the HD party.  Their boxes & packages are generally higher priced than the competitors. This is evident from the fact that their HD DVR box, even though inferior in features than its TataSky counterpart, is priced higher than it. It is true that Airtel was a premium brand till some time back and customers (including me) were willing to pay a premium for its products & services. However, now that both their products & service quality has depleted, and their competitors are offering better services at a cheaper price, I think they should rethink their pricing strategies.

Take the example of TataSky in DTH. Not only do they have the most HD channels (I am talking about real HD channels and not upscaled ones), they also have much lower service costs. I can agree that nobody is perfect and that TataSky probably has the worst QA team (as is evident from the recent buggy firmware update), but they are clear winners when its comes to pricing & promptness of service.

From the mobile world, we can look at Tata Docomo & Vodafone who are slowly gaining a lot of brand value in India. Honestly speaking, if Tata Docomo’s services were available in Delhi/NCR, I would be the first to port my number to them. For now, I carry a Vodafone number with me in addition to my Airtel 3G number. And I will make it my primary number as soon as Vodafone launches their 3G services in the whole of Delhi/NCR. I am not sure why they haven’t done so yet, but that is the subject for some other time.

All of this makes me relate Airtel to at&t in the US where the subscribers also face similar issues. I am not sure what is the reason behind all this and what Airtel can do to make a comeback, but they seriously need to take things seriously. Until then, I am sorry Airtel, but I do not feel like recommending you to anyone now.

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