Aircel: Out of reach

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As Aircel, the second largest cell phone service provider controlling 30 percent market in the state closed its shop, following its bankruptcy, it has started impacting the people’s lives in a way never seen earlier, reports Saima Bhat

February 21, 2018, Dr Sana, a gynaecologist, conveyed her father over phone that she was on her way to home in Rawalpora. It was 6:30 pm, and it would take another 20 minutes to reach, she conveyed.

Caught in the traffic jam, when she was still on her way even an hour later, her parents grew anxious. Once they dialed her number, the Aircel response panicked the aged couple: ‘the number you have dialed is either switched off or not reachable.’

After Isha, the late evening prayers were over, the couple came out of their home to wait for her outside.

“I couldn’t think what should I do. Weird thoughts were coming to my mind because I did not know if Sana was travelling in a running auto,” Abdul Rehman, Sana’s father, said. “She has never kept her phone off while traveling.”

Once home, she faced angry father and distressed mother. Sana tried explaining what went wrong, but Rehman scolded her for being ‘careless’. Sana’s only response was that the network showed “no signal” and despite switching it off many times, it was not “restored.”

But Sana was not alone. She was one of the 3457011 customers in Jammu and Kashmir, who were caught in the confusion and had no information about when the Aircel went into deep sleep mode. It took 12 hours more for them to know that Aircel has filed for bankruptcy.

Hundreds of young men and women, who had contributed their blood and sweat in making Dishnet Wireless, the second cell phone operator in the state, and ensured it was the only functional network during September 2014 floods, went into instant shock.

Otherwise busy, the multi-storey complex near the Gurdwara in Baghat, which housed Aircel, was deserted. Closed both for employees and the customers, the two gatekeepers who once maintained the entry logbooks of customers were almost sleeping. They said there was nobody in the office and it is “locked down”.

Initially, the local staff was inventing stories to keep the clientele in good humour. “We are running a slight dispute with a tower company,” was the initial response. “We are moving to another company and talks with BSNL are taking place,” they added, later. On Day 3, they were defence less.

For the users, it was a huge disruption. For “talkative” clients carrying only Aircel, it was a communication blockade. In certain cases, it was terrible.

Completely ignorant about things, Sajad Ahmad, an engineer in Dubai had called desperately his parents in Srinagar. Living alone, the old age couple did not know about the development either. Having only Aircel network at home and quite novices to the other apps, Sajad, after couple of days called his cousin and asked him about the welfare of his parents. Finally, when his cousin reached his home, he found the aged couple in desperation. Later they talked but Sajad had his apprehensions. He had booked his tickets and reached valley in next couple of days.

“That time was painful for me, because the response was not reachable,” Sajad said.

Some clients turned to social media networks to voice their concerns. Apologies apart, no help came.

As word spread about problems at Aircel, customers thronged other service providers to port or get a new SIM card. Sana also did the same. She decided to port to another network. First she searched on internet about how to port the network but that was in vain because she had no network on her phone to send the message.

She later went to Airtel store, which helped her to get her port code but her request to port was sent back saying her bill was pending. “When there was no communication from the operator and their website was not working, then how could have we been able to pay the bills,” she said. It is almost a month and her number is yet to port.

“They have made porting very difficult,” one executive of a leading network said. “The customers ask us why they need to pay the bills when their security deposits were already with the telecom company. We have no official communication to inform them but many have paid their bills even though the security deposit of Rs 300 each is held by the Aircel.”

Aircel was controlling 30.80 recent of the registered cell phone user base of 11220775 users across J&K. It entered Jammu and Kashmir December 2005 and quickly took the competition to the next level. It might have an investment of more than Rs 1000 crore across the state by way of hard infrastructure, mostly the base tower stations which had reached 700 in the initial few years. As the network expanded, it started tying up with other network owners for better growth.

Insiders in the telecom sector said the Aircel might have managed a revenue of touching Rs 4000 crores in its operations since 2006.

But when it decided to shut its shop in J&K, the operator even lacked the basic courtesy of even informing such a huge clientele.

Rajan S Matthews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) (an umbrella body of GSM players) told Kashmir Life that they have no information what is going to happen to the customers of Aircel, neither he had any information for the people who have invested.

Customers apart, there is crisis for the people who were working with Aircel. Hilal Ahmad Rather was giving technical support to Aircel. He was handling their call centre in Jammu, where around 350 employees were working. He says his bills are pending since July 2017 and the company owes him around Rs 1.5 crores.

“Pendency is more for vendors as they have not received any payments since September 2017.” Rather says there is no communication from Aircel officials as no number is working. He is apprehensive that there is no chance of revival and all of his employees have suddenly become jobless.

Other than that Aircel had at least 600 salaried employees with around 1000 off roll employees. “I don’t want to comment on their overall functioning but at least in J&K they were in profit.”

As per COAI figures, Aircel was the only telecom company that shows monthly gain of 34115 customers from December 2017 to January 2018, when Airtel had a growth of just 8278 customers.

Many local vendors, who were working with the company at local levels, are distressed with the situation.

“I had purchased easy recharge coupons worth Rs 30,000,” Muhammad Irfan, a retailer from Uri, said. “Now I don’t have any information if at all I am going to get my money back because no official or customer care numbers are working. I am waiting for a response from the company.”

Its subscribers are facing a new problem. They are deprived of various essential services linked to their mobile number.

“Mobile number is mentioned in Aadhar Card, Bank Accounts, Pan Card, Passport and in case of closure, the  company should have given us chance to port our mobile number with other service providers,” said Ahmad Khan, who had been using Aircel services for the ten years now.

As the customers face issue in using different facilities including the SMS alert service for their bank transactions, the other difficulty emerging is the contact numbers of the local business units of J&K Bank, state’s largest banker.

Once reputed for the services, Aircel network emerged as a parallel network to state run BSNL in J&K Bank. As the contact numbers, both in its corporate office and business units were from the Aircel network besides BSNL, the customers preferred using either of the two services. There are reports that Aircel was a client of the J&K Bank and its bankruptcy may add costs to the state.

Like difficulty in managing the SMS alert, there are number of people who have a similar problem in their LPG gas connection. “I had my number saved there from which I used to book my refill, but now that is lost,” laments Abdul Hamid of Barzulla.

“Contact number is an identity in these times and losing this is loss of identity,” says Muhammad Hanief, a doctor by profession.

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