A lobby representing telcos that offer mobile telephony services on the dominant GSM technology platform has decided to appeal against a telecom tribunal order that allows the government to allocate radio frequency, or spectrum, to companies waiting to start services in new areas, and those who have recently been allowed to offer services on dual technology platforms.

These companies, such as Bharti Airtel Ltd, Vodafone Essar Ltd and Idea Cellular Ltd, want the government to first allocate spectrum to them so that they can improve the quality of their service and add more subscribers in areas (or circles) where they currently operate.

Court-bound: T.V.Ramachandran, director general, COAI

The lack of spectrum is cited by these companies as one of the reasons for the poor quality of service.

“Since the (Delhi high court) is already closed today, and tomorrow being a holiday, we will file the petition first thing on Saturday," T.V. Ramachandran, director general of industry body Cellular Operators’ Association of India, or COAI, said on Thursday.

Arun Kumar, the chairman of Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal, or TDSAT, had said he would not interfere in policy matters of the government.

“Let the government decide on it," he said in reaction to the GSM lobby’s plea on 12 December. TDSAT has scheduled its next hearing on this issue for 9 January.

The government’s department of telecommunications, or DoT, has said it will allocate radio spectrum not exceeding 6.2MHz to operators such as Vodafone Essar and Idea Cellular, who are waiting to start their services in new areas, in addition to companies that have been allowed to use dual technology to offer phone services, including Reliance Communications Ltd, or RCom, which primarily uses the rival CDMA (short for code division multiple access) technology standard.

After the tribunal’s order, “we have started processing the applications and will be allocating spectrum to those waiting in the queue," Shakeel Ahmad, minister of state for communications and information technology, said on the sidelines of an industry event last week. “We should be able to resolve these issues within a fortnight."

Legal experts tracking the telecom industry said COAI is aiming to get a stay order from the high court against the telecom tribunal before the panel’s next hearing. “If COAI gets a hearing before 9 January, say on 4 January, then the high court can stay the TDSAT direction," said a lawyer specializing in telecom litigation who did not wish to be quoted.

The GSM lobby denied any split among its members. “All the four members of COAI, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and Spice Telecom, have unitedly decided to approach the Delhi high court in a writ petition against the non-speaking interim order given by the TDSAT on 12 December," COAI said in a statement on Thursday. GSM players are appealing against any spectrum allocation to operators such as RCom, which has applied for start-up spectrum for offering GSM-based phone services across the country. “DoT decisions are aimed at benefiting a single party," added Ramachandran, without naming RCom.

RCom has already paid Rs1,650 crore as licence fee towards starting GSM services. “An offer for equivalent spectrum at a price of Rs2,650 crore made by Bharti Airtel has been disregarded, whilst a lower offer of Rs1,650 crore by a large CDMA player has been accepted," COAI said.

India’s biggest mobile phone company by subscribers, Bharti Airtel, earlier this month said it would offer Rs2,650 crore for an additional 4.4MHz of radio spectrum and even raise the bid in case there is an auction of wireless frequency in the country.

India’s third largest mobile phone carrier by customers, Vodafone Essar, too, said it favours the auction route. “We will participate if there is an auction, I think that’s the only practical solution left now," a senior official of Vodafone Essar who didn’t want to be named, said.