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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

72 hours without a cell phone

Three days ago, on 17th evening, I lost my cell phone. A less than a year old, Samsung Galaxy S-2, the only expensive cell phone that I ever bought. And this happened when I was out of town, to Surat and Ahmedabad, which was far better than losing it in a new city without many friends and acquaintances. What I found amazing was the response of the service providers to this tragedy.

In the pre-mobile days, there were two disasters that could hit a traveler. You could lose a passport, or you could lose your credit cards. I have had the experience of getting an emergency passport in Indian Embassy at Washington in two hours flat, and Citibank sending me a new credit card within  24 hours. But today, losing a cell phone is a much bigger calamity than either of the two, since it affects you even at home, and of course, could be very serious while away. But can you recover from the loss in 2 hours or even 24 hours. Sorry, you will be in for a bigger shock than the original shock of losing your phone. Customer service is not exactly a strong point of cellular companies in India.

Director of IIT Gandhinagar, where I was visiting, assigned the task of helping me out to one of his staffers, Santosh, a young and dynamic person with amazing patience and full of ideas. The first task was to get the number blocked. The first few calls to 111 met with a standard response, file a police report, bring a copy of the report to one of the Vodafone stores or ministores, and they will block it. But that will take time (since police wanted me to show a proof of purchase and tell them the IMEI number of the phone, which will take some time to recover, sitting 1000 KM away from home). Finally, he called 9839098390, the UP(East) circle's customer service number, and they were more helpful. After several questions regarding my identity, they agreed to stop the service. I wish they had asked some question which Santosh did not know. I would have felt more secure. This way of blocking service could be used as a denial of service attack. But anyway I was thankful that the service to my phone had been blocked.

I was stupid enough not to have registered for Samsung's FindmyMobile Service, which is free. But I had enabled the 2-factor authentication for google services, and hence I could login to google to revoke access from my mobile to all google services. I was also carrying my Galaxy Tab (with an Airtel connection) and a laptop (with a Tata Photon connection). So I did not need an SMS to my phone to log in to google. (And, I was ready with one time codes from google, in case I had to login to google account from untrusted devices, which later on, I had to.) So, now I was sure that while the person finding the phone could look at my stored emails, my contacts, my calendar entries, but he would not be able to change any of them. And I had not stored any password on my mobile. There was hardly any data on the phone. And I had regularly backed up my mobile phone using Samsung Kies. So I wasn't going to lose anything important. (Though I haven't figured out yet how to restore that on a new device.)

Having taken care of the blocking of phone, I was quite at peace. I could use the SIM card of the tab in a temporary phone. The tab had all the numbers, and I was sure I could borrow a phone for a couple of days, before I bought a new one. So I thought of sending SMS to a few people telling them of my temporary number. But my tab kept telling me that SMS could not be sent. I thought it was some configuration issue, and searched google for similar problems. Couldn't find anything useful, but the SIM in the tab was on pre-paid, and all the searching, and emails, and stuff made sure that I ran out of charge on the tab. So one more device down. I switched on the laptop and thought that I could add some charge to the tab account and make that functional again. But it was midnight by then, and it kept showing me airtel site being down, perhaps for maintenance. I was paranoid by now. What if my laptop also stops functioning. I would be totally disconnected from the world. So I added 1GB charge to the Tata Photon service, when I already had 200MB left in my account, and my normal usage on a day when I am out of town is about 20-30 MB.

When I woke up in the morning, I thought I will try recharging my Airtel account for the Tab once again, and guess what. at 3:00 AM, my laptop, which I had forgotten to shutdown before sleeping, had downloaded Microsoft Windows updates, Vaiao updates, Semantec updates, and everything else that it thought it needed to become up-to-date, and had exhausted the entire 1.2 GB. Since I mostly use WiFi for connecting laptop to the net, my setting for updates has been to let it download everything, but ask me before applying those updates. I hope that in future, on laptops, they will allow me to set different update policy for WiFi and a different policy for cellular network, something common on cell phone operating systems.

Now, just imagine, how would it be, if I were in a new town without many friends. But at IIT Gandhinagar, it only meant that I had to go to office, connect to WiFi, back on Internet, pay the amount to various service providers, and you will have Internet connectivity even without WiFi from these two devices. (Of course, I wouldn't be able to use netbanking for making the payments, since that required me to type in a code which my lost phone would receive. But thankfully I remembered my credit card's second factor code.)

But now, I needed a phone. Santosh decided to work on twin strategies. Try to get Vodafone to issue me a new SIM. On the other hand, ask Airtel why my tab wasn't able to send SMS and make phone calls, and get them to fix the problem.

It appeared that Airtel problem was simpler. So he took the tab to an Airtel outlet. They checked the number in their computers, and pronounced the verdict. Since I had not used the connection for 60 days to make any phone calls or send an SMS, it had been deactivated. But why do they de-activate. How does it matter whether I have not made a call for 60 days or 600 days. Well, the all pervasive security reasons. If you have a pre-paid connection and you don't make a call/SMS for 60 days, it is assumed that you might have lost it, thrown it, or something, and it might fall into the hands of ISI, who will simply put some charge and use it for illegal communication.

But, wait a minute. You know that I have been using it daily. Every day, I have connected to the Internet using that SIM. So your assumption that I might have lost it is obviously wrong. But, Sir, this is what the computer is saying.

But, I just had a recharge 2 days ago towards phone/SMS, and I received an SMS from you that the validity of my connection has been extended to October 2014. Sir, the computer is not showing any recharge. In fact, if there is any recharge after the phone has been deactivated, that is not shown by the computer. (What he did not explicitly say, but meant was that I had lost that money, because I was stupid enough to recharge a dead phone.)

But, how come I continue to receive all commercial SMS messages if my SMS and Voice service has been blocked (and a point I did not want to argue - my number is on DND list). Sir, we reserve the right to send SMS messages in your benefit. Of course, and including the one which tells me that my service has been extended till October 2014. They will only do things for my benefit, and blocking my service was only to ensure my safety.

OK. So now, what do we do to unblock the SIM.The Airtel service agent was most polite. Sir, you only have to make an application, along with a proof of identity, a photograph, and an address proof, and it will be activated very soon. So Santosh went back with everything. No, Sir, you have to submit these things in any Airtel store in UP (East). But why can't you activate from here. Sir, each state is a different network. Of course, I know that. But it is the same company running the two networks. Sorry, Sir, we only take care of customers of Gujarat circle.

Do you think I can request someone in Kanpur to go to an Airtel store with all these documents, and they might agree to activate the SIM. No, Sir. They would like to see the SIM, to make sure that the SIM is indeed in your possession, and not with ISI, and you are not an ISI agent. Of course, national security is paramount. I felt secure for the first time since losing my phone the previous evening. I also felt that it was the right time to sell off the Bharti Airtel stock, which I have kept from their initial IPO.

So, the focus shifted to Vodafone to get a new SIM. All the Vodafone stores and mini stores that Santosh called told him that the new SIM can be issued only by a store in UP (East). Why is that. Is the SIM in Gujarat any different from a SIM in UP. Santosh being a very resourceful person, called up a senior executive in Vodafone, and explained to him the problem. Thankfully, the person agreed to help. He asked a Vodafone store to issue a SIM, and sent out a request to his counterpart in UP (East) to register that SIM. He told us that it will get activated between 4 and 24 hours.

When it did not get activated for 8 hours, Santosh called him again. He checked and told him that it has been activated and the phone should be working now. In the meanwhile in the expectation of getting a new SIM, I had bought a new phone. The phone was showing the signal strength was very good, which meant that the SIM had been installed correctly. But we did not want to disturb the executive in the night. So waited till morning. In the whole day, there were numerous calls to him and his office. And every time, we would be told to reboot the phone, do this setting or the other, check your roaming, and so on. The whole day was wasted like this.

On 3rd day morning, the SIM was still not getting registered on the network. But surprisingly, if someone were to call my number, they would get a ringing tone, and not the message that the number is blocked. When Santosh rang them up again, this time they could guess the problem. The UP East fellow who received the communication from Gujarat circle executive had activated the old SIM and not the new SIM. So the guy who has my phone could have made any number of phone calls if he wanted (though I checked on my call log on Vodafone site, there is no calls made from that phone since Friday evening). And once this problem was identified, they took only a few hours to fix it.

So I am back in action after 72 hours, only because Santosh knew a Vodafone executive, and relentlessly pursued him by making about FIFTY calls to him. Otherwise, Vodafone stores were no different in their response than the Airtel stores. Under normal circumstances, I would have had to wait till I returned to Kanpur, and made a personal trip to one of their stores, same thing that Airtel told me.

I have been a customer of Vodafone (and the earlier avatars of Hutch and Essar), right from July, 2000, when the call charges were very high and one paid for incoming calls as well, and have had earlier complaints about their service. The only reason to not change is that their competitors are no better.

But I wonder, if Government of India can issue an emergency passport in two hours in a foreign country, based on limited identity information that I have, why can't a telephone company issue a new SIM (or activate an old one) in 24 hours within the same country, when all sorts of identity proofs have been provided.

In these 72 hours, I realized that while not having a phone is certainly an inconvenience in today's world, but the inconvenience gets exaggerated because others don't expect you to not have the phone. So the maximum trouble I had was in locating the driver at the station, since they have forgotten the art of putting up a placard. They will send you an SMS with their number, expect you to call them up and discuss the place where you will meet them. If you have to meet anyone, they no longer wait for you at the pre-decided location, but will sit in a Coffee shop and expect to be called when you reach there. And, of course, the 2-factor authentication has made the mobile phone indispensable.


Kara said...

"Government of India can issue an emergency passport in two hours in a foreign country, based on limited identity information that I have, why can't a telephone company issue a new SIM (or activate an old one) in 24 hours within the same country, when all sorts of identity proofs have been provided."

Number game: There are 250 million + Airtel subscribers, and loosing one's cell-phone is more common among them (250M+), than loosing one's passport in a foreign country (where travelers are probably of the order of ~10 million)

Economics and Resource allocation: We are comparing an extremely cheap pre-paid Airtel service to Government funded passport service (for elites who have traveled abroad)

My thoughts: There is huge room of improvement for both Airtel and Vodafone, but after this incident they probably got ripped off those tiny profits they made from you earlier.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Kara, your point is well taken about the numbers. But any person who has lost his/her mobile will contact their customer service call center and go to the nearest dealer/store. So the cost of dealing with those calls/visits will be there, no matter what. The companies can actually reduce their cost by solving the problem in the first instance, and not having to deal with repeat calls.

Also, each such instance can be converted to an opportunity by the cell companies. For example, right now, Vodafone (and I guess others too) provide a free SIM replacement to post-paid customers, if you have a police report on the loss. This means that there is no incentive what so ever for their dealers/stores to help such a customer. They could charge Rs. 50 (just as an example) if the replacement is within the circle, and Rs. 100, if the replacement is outside the circle.

Sunil Bajpai said...

Perhaps, the cell phone companies could sell a replacement SIM in advance, to be activated when your original SIM is lost or damaged. Log on to their website or call customer care, provide some information and it's done! Recently, I received two VISA travel cards, original plus replacement, under a similar policy.

Girish Elchuri said...

This experience proves couple of points:
1. All service providers are same, as good or as bad as others making Mobile Number Portability a useless feature. Whoever has used, probably would have realized they just jumped from one bad operator to another bad one.

2. Most of these organizations simply are not process oriented. They have not thought of processes of what happens when their customer looses a phone while roaming. I have observed this with many many Indian organizations. They are simply not process oriented. Whatever little good happens in those organizations is due to some good and sensible people around. Probably this could be a good topic to introduce in management schools, as that's the only way the organizations will function efficiently.