Before I write about the insanity known as “Trying to purchase Airtel mobile phone service in India”, I need to make the point that this experience was not representative of most of my other interactions with Indian vendors or institutions. I had read and heard about how hard it is to get internet, electricity, TV, etc. hooked up and turned on here, but was surprised with the ease and efficiency that most of it happened. And I have seen Indian examples of entrepreneurship and on-the-spot problem solving that would make Ayn Rand proud.
Example- buying school uniforms for the kids at the designated shop in Bangalore two weeks ago, Hank’s pants were a bit too long, so we figured we’d just deal with it. But the owner of the shop took the pants, waved someone over, handed them the pants and said something in the local language (Kannada) and that person made a call on his mobile phone. Less than 5 minutes later another man rode up to the shop on his motorcycle, ran in with his helmet still on, grabbed the pants and rode away. Less than 10 minutes after that, as we were checking out, the motorcycle man rode back with the pants. He had taken them to a local tailor and had them perfectly hemmed. The uniform shop owner charged us nothing and acted like it was par for the course, which I’m sure it was. He was a man that got things done. If it were up to me, I’d put that man in charge of Airtel.
On to the phones– purchasing the actual phones was trivially easy. I went and picked out 3 Samsung phones at a store at the local mall. One for me, one for Hank, and one for Emily. Not the Galaxy Note phones they wanted, but lower end, but still nice phones. The kids didn’t have phones in the U.S. but I wanted them to be able to contact me at any time over here. Anyhow, picked out the phones, paid for them, brought them home. Easy. Activating them the next day? Not so easy.
First of all I had to choose a service provider. Airtel, by reputation, seemed to be the least worst. So I went with our driver Revanna (who not only drives me in the crazy traffic, but is my interpreter and guide– he too is a man that gets things done) to the nearest Airtel shop a couple miles from our house. Inside the shop was, to my eyes, pure chaos. Three Airtel reps sat behind desks and 8-10 customers either stood or sat in chairs in front of the desks– there was no “line/queue” and I had no idea what was going on or what to do. Revanna grabbed an unused chair and told me to sit in front of one of the desks and he interrupted an Airtel rep talking to another customer and started speaking fast (in Kannada) and pointing to me. The interruption would have been rude in the U.S., but it seemed normal here- if you don’t speak up, you get ignored.
Eventually I was presented with a bunch of pamphlets and Revanna gave a female rep in front of me all my paperwork (6 passport photos, 3 copies of my Indian visa, 3 copies of my passport, 3 copies of my FRRO (more official Indian paperwork), and a copy of my house lease) The pamphlet was indecipherable, even though it was in English, with many different calling plans listed. I tried to make sense of the plans and convert from rupees to dollars for each one. Eventually I settled on the “Family Plan”, but it made no sense that it was $25 per month for all three phones (total due to Airtel each month=$25). It would be 5-7x that in the U.S., so I assumed I misinterpreted it, but the price was correct. After I selected the plan I was told I now had 90 “packs” to spend (?) and I asked what a “pack” was? It turned out, a pack could be 200 text messages, or 30 minutes local calls, or 120MB of 3G data, etc. So I had to pick out how many packs I wanted of each. And I had to do it in my head on the spot. So I did my best math estimations for how many text messages kids might send per month, plus 3G, etc. and just guessed.
The rep took my applications (one per phone) and stapled my picture, passport copy, visa copy, and FRRO copy to each one. I figured if someone wanted to steal my identity, they had more than enough info right there with each application. The Airtel rep gave me three SIM cards and told me to put them in the phones and they would be active in 24 hours, so I thought I was done.
One day passed, two days, three days, and phones still didn’t work. Revanna called Airtel for me no less than eight times and each time it was “just 12 more hours sir”. Finally we went back in and saw the same rep. I saw my photo stapled to the application on her desk- excactly where she put it 3 days ago! Nothing had been done. So we got the “12 more hours” once again. Two days after that Revanna told me to give him the SIM cards out of the phones, so I did. Apparently he went in and put them on the reps desk and demanded my deposit back and said we were going elsewhere. This finally started the wheels in motion. That afternoon, a man on a motorcycle came to my house and told me he was from Airtel and he was there to verify my address in person. He didn’t even ask for ID, just asked “Are you Mr. John?” and when I said yes, he left.
12 hour later my SIM card was working, but I still couldn’t make calls. I had to call Airtel and verify I was who I said I was. So I called them. They asked my name and I said “John Moran”. They said “Please call back in 2 days sir” and hung up. I called again and got another rep and explained the last one just hung up on me. They asked me my name as I had entered it on the official Airtel application. I said “John Frank Moran” and they said “Good. Now what is your father’s name?” and I said “What?” and they said “What is your father’s name?” and I said “Almost the same – John Francis Moran” and the same thing happened “Please call back in 2 days sir” and they hung up. So I gave up for the day.
That night I recalled reading a blog post by a fellow expat and I recalled him saying how he had to tell Airtel the EXACT wording off his FRRO government form or there would be issues. Inspired, I found my government paperwork the next day and called again. This time I read off the same script they were reading from and I got all the way to “email” address after getting past name, father’s name, and 5 long lines of my Indian home address, and without thinking I gave them my email and I looked down at the FRRO and I saw it was Sarah’s email on the document, and in slow motion terror I said “Noooo!! That’s not the email, this is..” and I heard “in 2 days” before the line went dead. Again inspired by my close call to actually having phone service, I called back, and this time made it through the gauntlet of questions and got my phone turned on!
I could type for 2 more pages describing how I had to go through the exact same process for each additional phone, including the same man on the motorcycle coming to my house two more times to make sure I was still “Mr. John”, but you get the picture!
I told the kids if they ever lose their phone I am not going through that again, so they better take care of them!