A pro-consumer call

| Updated on April 30, 2014 Published on April 30, 2014

The Centre had no business opposing spectrum sharing by operators

The Telecom Disputes Settlement & Appellate Tribunal’s (TDSAT) order permitting mobile operators to share spectrum, enabling them to provide 3G services in each other’s circles, is a shot in the arm for consumers. Currently, an Airtel can sell 3G connections — which enable subscribers to use mobiles for high-speed internet services, apart from calls and texts — only in 13 telecom circles (of the total 22) where it holds spectrum in the 2100 MHz frequency band. Likewise, Idea Cellular has bagged 3G airwaves in 11 circles and Vodafone in nine. To be in a position to expand their operating footprint, some service providers had entered into ‘intra-circle roaming’ arrangements. These allowed an Idea to sign up customers in Delhi by roaming on Airtel’s 3G spectrum, just as the latter could do the same in Madhya Pradesh using the former’s airwaves. Since this arrangement was voluntary and suited both, why should anyone have objected?

Well, the Centre thought there was reason to, maintaining that operators had no right to offer 3G services in areas where they did not have spectrum rights. It sought to even impose penalties, claiming that the roaming pacts violated the provisions of the operators’ licences. The TDSAT has rejected this argument, noting that the operators held Unified Access Service licences permitting them to provide all types of fixed and mobile services. Since there were no separate 2G or 3G licences, nothing stopped a so-called 2G operator in a particular circle from offering 3G services using the 2100 MHz spectrum belonging to another operator. Moreover, the Centre has itself been favouring the removal of restrictions on exclusively earmarking 2100 MHz airwaves for 3G, 900/1800 MHz for 2G, and 2300 MHz for 4G services. Given the suitability of even 900/1800 MHz bands for 3G technology, it is absurd to speak only of 2100 MHz airwaves as ‘3G spectrum’.

Rather than challenge the TDSAT order, the Centre should allow operators to use spectrum bought through auctions the way they see fit — and this includes their sharing it with others. Today, there is only one player (Reliance Industries) with the spectrum to launch 4G mobile broadband services on a pan-India scale. If roaming pacts can pave the way for more pan-Indian players on the basis of spectrum sharing — thereby also leading to better utilisation of a scarce natural resource — how will this hurt consumers? The Centre, in 2010, erred by selling spectrum in auctions that permitted a maximum of three 3G players in each circle. Since this made it impossible for any operator to offer pan-Indian services, they were virtually forced to go in for spectrum sharing arrangements, which the Centre deemed illegal. Thankfully, TDSAT has begged to differ and for entirely correct reasons.

Published on April 30, 2014
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