The telecom minister has assured the Prime Minister’s Office that there has been no deviation in procedures in his recent decisions on licences and spectrum. But events of the past several weeks contradict that claim. And that’s precisely what is under debate—not only in the media but, importantly, in the courts, too.
The immediate question is how scarce radio spectrum can be most efficiently allocated to and used by mobile service providers. Even as DoT doesn’t know how to cope with the huge list of applicants for licences (and spectrum), it has created a new controversy regarding norms for an operator’s subscriber base that determine the spectrum it needs.
The department of telecom (DoT) said on 19 October: “Trai...recommended to enhance the subscriber...criterion for allocation of...spectrum...and to set up a committee to study further allocation... Government has accepted Trai’s recommendation of enhanced subscriber...criterion...and has set up a committee in Telecom Engineering Centre (TEC).”
On its part, Trai recommended on 29 August in response to DoT’s reference to review licence terms: “...to frame a new spectrum allocation criteria, a multi-disciplinary committee may be constituted...” Trai asked that the members should be from the government, Trai and all segments of the industry. As an ad hoc measure, the regulator prescribed a set of tighter norms. But while DoT said it accepted Trai’s advice, it rejected Trai’s revision of subscriber norms—instead it accepted TEC’s numbers, which were far higher than Trai’s.
While ensuring efficient use of spectrum by asking operators to serve more users with a given amount of spectrum is, no doubt, correct, the process of doing so has been quite non-transparent.
What DoT did is to accept TEC’s norms overnight—without even having its own Telecom Commission deliberate why there is a significant divergence between the two sets of norms. Besides, why were TEC norms accepted with such alacrity when even Trai’s more moderate revisions are sub judice in the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal? One may not be entirely wrong in wondering whether TEC norms subscribe more to the minister’s views or to DoT’s. The doubts add on, since decisions affect existing players’ valuations in no small way.
It is significant that TEC’s report of 31 October refers to a note dated 6 August from the private secretary (PS) to the telecom minister (why not secretary of DoT?), which the note says is Annexure-1. But a scan reveals no such annexure. What’s even more interesting is that the PS wrote to TEC at a time when Trai was already engaged in a consultation process. So, if spectrum efficiency norms were not a part of Trai’s reference, how did DoT accept Trai’s tightened criteria as part of its dual spectrum policy statement on 19 October?
While we concede that the cap on spectrum for operators using both technologies— GSM and CDMA—is sensible, the question is why are there no details on spectrum norms for CDMA-based services? It is also odd that TEC, a purely technical panel, has decided new revenue-sharing terms for spectrum—surely this needed some economic analysis? This may net the exchequer some more, but it does not match up to the best solution —auctioning of spectrum, which would have also prevented the controversies. The minister says auctions would be “unfair”. But it is the ad hoc manner in which recent decisions were made that seem unfair. The economics of spectrum has been discussed often, including in this space. There’s reason for wondering if coalition politics will keep recent decisions “safe” from scrutiny. A group of ministers, as the law ministry suggests, may bring some transparency.
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