Can mobile users of an operator be transferred to another without the subscribers’ consent? This question has become the moot point of difference between the Department of Telecom and the telecom regulator in the ₹700-crore deal between Airtel and Loop.
While the Department of Telecom is in favour of allowing the deal, the regulator has said that transfer of subscribers between two operators can happen only with the users’ consent through Mobile Number Portability (MNP).
In February, Airtel had announced the deal to acquire Loop Mobile’s 3 million subscribers in Mumbai along with the mobile infrastructure comprising 400 towers. Loop Mobile’s 20-year licence expires in November and the company was unable to win back the spectrum to continue services. Airtel, on the other hand, won spectrum in Mumbai in the last round of auction. The slump sale deal with Airtel, therefore, came as a relief for Loop subscribers who were assured of continuity of services.
However, TRAI has raised concern over transferring subscribers to Airtel without their consent and said that such shifting can happen only through the MNP system. The regulator also said that it was unclear as to who will be held responsible if there was any discrepancy in subscriber verification from the security point of view. Countering TRAI’s observation, Loop has submitted that the deal in fact saved the subscribers from going through the MNP process and in any case there was no lock-in for any user who wishes to move to any other operator. Loop argued that a similar transaction had been allowed when Norway’s Telenor shifted assets and subscribers from the earlier joint venture with Unitech to the new company — Telewings. DoT has backed this view on the ground that the licence did not bar such slump sale. DoT also said that it was clarified prior to the last round of spectrum auction that if any player wins spectrum from an existing operator whose licence is set to expire, then, the assets, roll-out obligation and resources can be transferred between the two players.
But with TRAI sticking to its position, the DoT has now decided to seek legal opinion on whether or not to permit the deal. Meanwhile, not wanting to take any chances, Airtel has started calling Loop subscribers to opt for its network through MNP even as it awaits approvals.