TDSAT reserves interim order on Airtel, Idea pleas against Trai rules on tariffs
New Delhi: The Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) on Tuesday reserved its interim order on pleas of Bharti Airtel Ltd and Idea Cellular Ltd against the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai) recent regulation on tariff principles.
The operators had sought interim relief in terms of reporting tariff requirements to the regulator.
Till the interim order is released, the regulator cannot seek details from Bharti Airtel on a showcause notice it had sent on 15 March where it pulled up the operator for failing to comply with tariff reporting requirements by not informing it about certain segmented tariffs offered to consumers to retain them.
The telecom tribunal had on 2 April granted temporary relief to Airtel in responding to the regulator’s queries ranging from circle-wise launch date of these segmented tariffs, criteria for classification of consumers availing these tariffs and whether these were reported to the regulator.
Operators are required to report any new tariffs to Trai within seven working days from the date of their implementation after conducting a self-check to ensure the tariffs are transparent, non-discriminatory and non-predatory.
Trai’s rules also restrict operators from offering segregated or segmented offers or plans to retain customers, by making sure that all tariffs are displayed on a company’s website.
The new norms on pricing released by Trai on 16 February also state that in case of violation of tariff reporting requirements, an operator can be penalised Rs5,000 for every day of delay, subject to a maximum of Rs2 lakh.
Moreover, discounts, rebates and waivers when applied to a tariff would give rise to a new and distinct tariff and this would mean that the offer of a discount is effectively the offer of a new tariff, Trai rules state.
While Airtel and Idea challenged the order in TDSAT, Vodafone moved the Madras high court.
“I don’t have a difficulty in reporting it (segmented tariffs) in-principle, the difficulty is in practice. This will apply to lakhs of consumers all over India. For everyone I have to report and put on my website within seven working days will be an impossibility. The basis for imposing this is only that it amounts to a new tariff.... our submission is giving a discount or concession does not amount to a new tariff,” the legal counsel for Idea Cellular said on Tuesday.
Airtel’s counsel argued that there was a change in policy which essentially was a direct intrusion to the choice and flexibility of customer retention.
Even as it reserved its interim order, the three-member bench raised an observation as to whether Trai was sticking to ‘light-touch regulation’ or was there a case of regulatory over-reach.
“We want you to understand the significance of how much this issue of non-discrimination, what lies under it, what is the purpose to be achieved...you want to regulate only for benefit to the customer,” TDSAT chairperson Shiva Kirti Singh observed.
The bench also observed whether offering a segmented tariff to retain a customer was a business right of an operator.
“Why do you want to regulate whether this (a particular segmented tariff) is given to one or to all...then what you are trying to say is you will try to control each and every aspect of doing business,” Justice A.K. Bhargava said.
“The issue in this particular case is retention of the customer not the tariff. That customer is already under the tariff. I may want to retain one particular customer I may not want to retain...as a part of doing business I would take a call and offer him if required...which principle is violated by this action...where is the non-discrimination...he is still under the same tariff, he has got some concession on the account of retention and retention is (an operator’s) right to do business,” Justice Bhargava said.
Reliance Jio has been impleaded as a party in the case and has been given 10 days to file a reply. The company had on 29 January written to the regulator alleging that operators, including Airtel, were offering discriminatory tariffs to customers to retain them.
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