In the face of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis, are telcos stepping up for their customers?

By Easwaran Rutnam

One of the most common complaints we saw during the COVID lockdowns was against Sri Lanka’s large mobile providers, who were accused of severely letting customers down, just when they needed them most.

Just as employers were switching into ‘Work From Home’ modes, and students and most parents were forced to grapple with the difficulties of ‘Study From Home’ they found that even something as simple as a video call was painfully frustrating.

The truth was that the Sri Lankan mobile industry was aligned to catering to a pre-COVID geographic distribution of customers, while the WFH and SFH concept completely reshuffled demand, while supply was slow to adapt.

Now two years on, Sri Lankans are facing the worst inflation and economic conditions in our entire history. Many have only their mobile phones to turn to for the internet they need to work, study, and stay connected to friends, family and loved ones. At such a crucial moment, quality of service is only one side of the coin. Affordability and value is the other.

So far, in the prepaid market, which makes up the majority of local users – Airtel has been leading the charge on affordability – being the first to introduce simple, easy-to-understand unlimited packages with unlimited calls to any network and unlimited social media browsing over and above a minimum 30GB of data for additional internet use.

In addition to their prepaid customers, Airtel was also the first to offer similar unlimited packs for postpaid users, as well as a data roll-over option to carry over unused data from one month to the next, enabling them to only pay for what they use.

This provides customers with a fair deal in which a regular, set price will provide for all of their usage for a single month, where the fragmented packages of other telcos can sometimes lead to customers getting trapped into spending more than the planned on.

Worse still is the fact that despite being a common feature in every other significant market across South Asia, in Sri Lanka, Mobile Number Portability (MNP) continues to remain in limbo.

The impact of MNP in moderating cost, strengthening competition, and ensuring that customers get a fairer overall deal is undeniable. In India, 30 million number switching requests are submitted by customers every quarter. This high level of churn keeps telcos on their toes, by providing customers with the power to choose between the options that best suite them.

Conversely, in Sri Lanka, even if another telco is offering a better deal, the average customer is obstructed from exercising their right to choose a deal that best serves them – unless they are willing to part with their number. Many of us who have made this kind of switch understand what a tedious process this can be.

If the Government, regulators and industry leaders are serious about stepping up for their customers, these are the kind of reforms that we as consumers have to push for. (Colombo Gazette)