India's operators respond to COVID-19

Following a government request amid the outbreak of COVID-19, India's operators have said they will continue providing prepaid connectivity even if customers cannot afford to extend the validity of services.

India was placed under a 21-day lockdown on March 24 to halt the spread of COVID-19. The move, however, has led to unprecedented hardship for consumers on low incomes who rely on prepaid services. Typically, villagers and people from small towns move to metros and big cities for work as laborers and daily wage earners. Because of the lockdown, several thousand people have lost their livelihoods and been returning to their homes. Authorities have been trying to stop them at city borders.

A majority of these people still use feature phones and minimum recharge prepaid plans. Service providers are stepping up to ensure this segment remains connected and is able to communicate with family and friends.

Vodafone Idea has extended the validity of prepaid plans till April 17, meaning customers will continue to receive incoming calls even if the validity expires. It is also adding talk time credit of 10 Indian rupees ($0.13) to the accounts of nearly 100 million feature phone users. Bharti Airtel has announced similar measures for its 80 million subscribers who use feature phones. State-backed BSNL and MTNL have also extended connectivity to their prepaid subscribers till April 20.

"In this difficult hour of fighting off the threat of COVID-19, Airtel is committed to ensuring that all people remain connected without any disruptions. And for this objective, it is critical to take care of the under-privileged daily wage earners of our country, whose lives have been disrupted due to the lockdown," said Shashwat Sharma, Airtel's chief marketing officer, in a press note issued by the company.

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Jio, which offers pure-play 4G services and is unlikely to have feature phones on its network, is providing 100 minutes of calls and 100 text messages free to its subscribers across the country till April 17. This will benefit people who were recharging through physical retail stores. Further, JioPhone users will continue to receive incoming calls till April 17, post-validity.

This extension of validity also helps the telcos in retaining the customers, who might have easily moved to a different service provider if they were disconnected.

The hit to revenue because of this move might be offset by an increase in consumption in urban areas, where remote working has become the norm.

Further, there has been a massive increase in the use of streaming services, like Netflix and Amazon. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) says growth in data consumption is as high as 30% and this is only likely to increase as the lockdown continues and people are forced to stay in their homes.

— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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