GSM lobby softens stand, not to take legal recourse

Last Updated: Mon, Mar 11, 2013 06:24 hrs

A few days after it accused the government of showing "gross favouritism" to Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd (RJIL) by allowing internet service providers (ISP) with broadband wireless access (BWA) spectrum to offer voice services by paying a "small fee", the GSM operators' body has softened its stand.

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said it would not take any legal step on the issue, unlike what it had said earlier. "Our main aim was to bring the matter to the notice of the government. We will not pursue the matter further or go for legal recourse. It's now up to the government to take action," Rajan Mathews, COAI director general, told Business Standard.

RJIL, formerly Infotel Broadband, holds pan-Indian BWA spectrum it acquired in 2010. The Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries later acquired Infotel Broadband and renamed it.

Last month, the Telecom Commission had approved a recommendation allowing companies having ISP licences along with BWA spectrum to offer phone calls services by paying a fee of Rs 1,658 crore each.

Last week, COAI wrote to the department of telecommunications (DoT), alleging the DoT was trying to give "undue benefits" to RJIL by its decision.

RJIL had denied the allegation and dared GSM players to compete in the open market.

Playing down its earlier aggressive stand, Mathews said many GSM operators also had BWA spectrum and, therefore, they were not afraid of competing with RJIL. "Currently, there is no vibrant ecosystem in the 2,300 MHz band for devices that offer voice services. That may take years. So, we are not afraid of competition from them as a result of allowing voice services (via internet). Many of our members also have BWA spectrum."

Some COAI members said a consensus was not built on the issue and many of them were not consulted on the letter.

Said the chief executive officer of a member of COAI: "We were not consulted, especially as many of our members also have BWA spectrum. We have made a point that we should have been consulted." The executive did not want to be named.

Mathews, however, defended the decision to write the letter quickly. "This was the second letter. Earlier, we had written to DoT on voice over (4G) LTE. That letter was written in consultation with all members of the association. There is no need to consult with every member every time we write a letter. Sometimes, we have to act very fast, as we need to communicate before EGoM (empowered group of ministers) meetings."

Meanwhile, DoT defended its decision to allow voice on BWA spectrum. Communications minister Kapil Sibal said the decision was based on recommendations of the regulator and endorsed by the Telecom Commission. Everyone can migrate to a unfied licence and offer voce services. Telecom secretary R Chandrashekhar said the BWA auction in 2010 did not have any restriction on offering voice services, as long as operators took a UASL (unified access services licence) or telecom licence for Rs 1,658 crore but won't get 2G spectrum bundled with this. "No new changes were made in the terms," he said.

COAI's letter had also alleged that the government was treating the operators that had signed inter-circle 3G roaming pacts differently from BWA operators with ISP licences, such as RJIL.

DoT had disallowed Bharti Airtel Ltd, Idea Cellular Ltd and Vodafone India Ltd- which had signed inter-circle roaming pacts to operate in the circles where they did not own spectrum- from offering 3G services. This has been challenged in court.

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