Bharti Airtel has filed a plea with the Delhi High Court to turn down an order by the Department of Telecom asking it to stop offering 3G roaming in areas where it does not have spectrum within 72 hours.

The DoT issued the order to the mobile operator on Friday morning after which the company approached the court. The case is likely to come up for hearing on Monday before the 72-hour deadline set by DoT expires. Airtel has also been asked to pay a penalty for violating the licence condition by offering 3G services in places where it does not own spectrum.

Operators’ pact

The DoT order has significant implications for Airtel as it will lose its pan-India 3G footprint at a time when arch-rival Reliance Jio Infocomm is gearing up to launch its data and voice services based on 4G technology across the country.

Soon after the spectrum auctions finished in 2010, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular entered into an agreement to offer 3G services across the country. The DoT is preparing separate notices for Vodafone and Idea Cellular in this regard.

This was necessitated because none of these players had won pan-India spectrum individually. This deal that they struck is called an intra-circle roaming agreement.

The current licence rules permit operators to go in for roaming agreements so that users get seamless coverage as they move from one circle to another.

DoT’s view

But in the case of 3G services, operators are selling connections even where they do not have spectrum. For example, in Madhya Pradesh neither Bharti Airtel nor Vodafone has 3G spectrum but both have subscribers. This has been made possible because the two operators have entered into an agreement with Idea Cellular.

However, the DoT has taken the view that this is not a roaming arrangement.

“If the contention of the operators that they can sell full mobility services using the network of other operators by entering into so-called commercial roaming agreements is accepted, then it would tantamount to the position where the companies having the licence to provide the mobile services will not establish any kind of network to provide the services and may not bid for spectrum during the auction process,” stated the notice issued to Airtel.

The DoT had first issued a show-cause notice in September 2012 asking the mobile operators to explain why no action should be taken against them. However, the operators challenged the DoT decision in court. The court asked the Department to take a decision after giving the operators a hearing.

(This article was published on March 15, 2013)
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