Home / Industry / Telecom /  Govt panel meets, but no relief measures for telcos yet

NEW DELHI : The government’s highest decision-making body on telecom matters met on Friday but did not take a decision on relief measures to help telecom operators pay adjusted gross revenue (AGR) dues, saying it needs more details to reconcile the dues.

“We have not yet decided anything (on relief measures for telcos) on AGR today. There are other factors...we need certain data (from telcos)...there has to be reconciliation (of dues)," one person with direct knowledge of the matter said after the meeting of the Digital Communications Commission.

“The panel will have to meet again soon," he said requesting anonymity. An email query to the department of telecommunications (DoT) did not elicit any response till press time.

Any relief measure, once agreed by the commission, will also need to be approved by the cabinet.

The development comes as a setback to Vodafone Idea Ltd, which has repeatedly told the government that its survival depends on urgent relief measures.

Earlier this week, DoT asked all operators to speed up their self-assessment of AGR dues and submit documents backing their calculations, even after Bharti Airtel Ltd, Tata Teleservices Ltd and Vodafone Idea made partial payments.

The government is exploring the possibility of roping in third-party audit firms to reconcile dues payable by telecom operators after differences emerged in individual calculations made by the government and telcos, Mint reported on 21 February.

The commission, which has representatives from DoT, ministry of finance, ministry of electronics, and information technology and NITI Aayog, met on Friday following a series of meetings between Vodafone Idea chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla and top government officials.

Birla met telecom secretary on 18 February and met finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman the following day.

Vodafone Idea was the worst hit by a recent Supreme Court ruling which asked telcos to pay up their AGR dues by 23 January. Since last week’s meetings, the finance ministry and DoT have been discussing possible relief measures to prevent India’s telecom sector from becoming a duopoly.

Mint reported earlier this week that the government is considering proposals such as setting up a fund, which will lend money to telcos at a concessional rate to help them pay their dues, and a payment plan that will enable companies to defer the payment of penalties and interests.

The government is also examining whether it can issue soft loans to Vodafone Idea from its 50,000-crore universal services obligations fund.

Last October, the Supreme Court had upheld the government’s definition of AGR, by which it calculates levies on telecom operators. The order dealt a blow to the telecom industry, which had for years argued that AGR should only include revenue from core telecom operations. Telecom operators now have to pay dues of the past 14 years with interest and fines.

Vodafone Idea has been the worst hit by the verdict, as its past dues have soared to over 50,000 crore. It has so far paid 3,500 crore to the government.

“With the recent AGR judgment, the situation has become even more critical," the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said in a letter to DoT on 26 February, adding that “the industry requests support from the government to take steps to make the telecom sector sustainable".

The industry body, which represents Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, has also urged the government to set a minimum price for mobile services starting 1 April, and reduce licence fees and spectrum usage charges to alleviate the financial stress in the sector.

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