Ajay Sharma, a Delhi based entrepreneur, uses his smart phone to send designs of suitcases and briefcases as high resolution pictures and 3D videos to his prospective clients across India. But slow internet speeds, often half or less of what he pays for, is seriously hampering his business.
"I have lost potential customers because of slow internet speeds. If the design does not upload or download on time; the discussion lingers on and sometimes gets dropped. I have lost potential business worth at least Rs 10 lakh in the last few days," rues Sharma of AAR KAY Tools & Dyes in West Delhi.
"As an internet user I pay for a service, but I am not getting what is assured. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) should take action but it is not doing anything to force telecom operators to deliver what they promise," said Saleem Ahemad, vice president, Telecom User's Group, a consumer rights group registered with TRAI.
Sharma's said he gets mobile internet speeds below 100 kbps during 8am till 8pm on week days. Only between 10 pm and 7 am are the speeds at the promised 512 kbps.
The story is similar in other parts of the country. In Mumbai, Sujit Marar, who lives in the Vashi area, gets mobile internet speeds of 256 Kbps between 6 and 11am, 512 Kbps from 11am to 5pm, and 256 Kbps again from 5pm to 11pm.
Shivaraj Prasad, who lives in Kilpauk area in Chennai, gets an even worse 64 Kbps during the entire day, from 9am to 9pm. He roams the city searching for 256 kbps in areas that have offices. On weekends, interestingly, he has even obtained 1 Mbps at his home. All these people have 512 Kbps data packets.
The problem is that India's telecom infrastructure - inadequate spectrum and a 30% deficit in the number of towers - is woefully unprepared to handle the country's exponentially rising internet subscriber base, which stood at 300 million at the end of October, 2014.
Of this, about 250 million access the internet via their mobile phones. Another 650 million mobile subscribers, who don't use their phones to access the Net, use the same towers and other infrastructure for making calls and sending messages.
Consider this: India needs 625,000 towers to provide quality voice and data services to all telecom and internet subscribers. But there are only 425,000 towers, leaving a gap of 200,000 towers.
"Telecom companies are not investing in technologies that can offer optimum spectrum utilisation. They are only adding more subscribers. So, the quality of service gets compromised," said Saleem Ahemad, vice president of Telecom Users Group, a leading consumer organisation registered with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
Vodafone India managing director and CEO Marten Pieters agreed that operators do not always provide the internet speeds they promise.
"My company gives what it promises… but then, I was in an airport in Kerala and the (Vodafone) internet was not working. How can it work with five operators using five megahertz of spectrum? Unless the government gives us more spectrum and clearances to put up more towers, mobile internet speeds will not improve," Vodafone's Pieters said.
"Consumers cannot be made scapegoats in the fight between telecom operators and the government," said Ahemad.
You can check the download and upload speed of your connection at sites such as speedtest.net.in.
Except Vodafone, all the major telcos - Airtel, Idea Cellular, Reliance Communications and Tata Communications - declined to comment for this report.
The situation is expected to get worse in the coming months. Falling prices and rising sales of smartphone prices means more people are now accessing the internet. There are about 90 million smartphone users, or 10% of India's mobile subscriber base of 900 million, in India. This is projected to rise to more than 300 million by 2020. And there is precious little that the consumer can do about his slow data speeds, till the operators improve the infrastructure.
According to Trai, India will have 600 million broadband users by 2020, who will get a minimum internet speed of 2 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed. Higher speeds of at least 100 Mbps will then be available on demand. At 2 Mbps speed, a typical MP3 album of 100MB can be downloaded in five or 10 minutes.
"Operators need to improve their network management and not get fixated with more spectrum. We are holding discussions with them," said a senior official in Telecom Commission, the policy making wing of Department of Telecommunications.
"Each year we invest more than $10 billion (Rs 60,000 crore) in network expansion. This is in addition to the spectrum fee and taxes that we pay to the government," countered COAI's Mathews.Meanwhile, consumers like Sharma and millions of others will continue to suffer.