New Delhi: In a scathing ruling, India’s telecom disputes settlement panel has come down heavily on the country’s telecom regulator and administration on the policy to allot radio spectrum—or frequencies used to connect mobile phones—to phone service firms.
Clearing the uncertainty before firms such as Reliance Communications Ltd (RCom) and Tata Teleservices Ltd (TTSL) that run on so-called CDMA networks for now, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has upheld an October 2007 decision by the department of telecommunications (DoT) permitting them to also offer services based on a popular, rival GSM standard.
CDMA stands for code division multiple access, and GSM is short for the global system for mobile communications. GSM-run phone networks serve three of four mobile phone customers in India.
At the centre of TDSAT’s ruling on Tuesday was a recommendation by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on the subscriber-linked spectrum allocation norms, which the tribunal, headed by justice Arun Kumar, said was arrived at failing to “observe the principle of transparency”.
“We hold that Trai was wrong in arriving at revised subscriber norms based on a theoretical simulation, and that too without an opportunity being given to all stakeholders to debate the issue,” the judgement read. In August 2007, Trai tightened subscriber-linked norms for spectrum by up to 10 times.
TDSAT was hearing a petition by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), a lobby representing GSM operators, and four firms including Bharti Airtel Ltd and Vodafone Essar Ltd, versus the Government of India, Trai, four firms using CDMA technology including RCom and TTSL, and state-run phone firms Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL).
The tribunal further held that GSM phone firms under the prevalent telecom rules “do not have any vested right to receive GSM spectrum beyond 6.2MHz”.
T.V. Ramachanran, COAI director general, said his group was studying Tuesday’s ruling and will “decide what our next move is after that is done”. Phone operators party to the petition offered no comments.
In its ruling, TDSAT called the allocation of spectrum to BSNL and MTNL discriminatory to private operators, urging DoT to review the subscriber base of the two state-run firms in their service areas and take back spectrum beyond what they are entitled to.
DoT secretary Siddhartha Behura told Mint: “We have given the operators the spectrum based on a set criteria. Taking it back is out of the question.” If TDSAT has said the spectrum policy is wrong, “we may have to come out with a new policy, but that may not be with backdated (retrospective) effect”, Behura said.
TDSAT judgements can only be challenged in the Supreme Court.
Regulatory expert Mahesh Uppal rooted for “a market-like pricing” for spectrum. “Spectrum needs to be valued reflecting its scarcity and demand,” said the director of Com First (India) Pvt. Ltd.