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Caveat emptor: WiLL row lobbed to customers’ court

New Delhi, Dec. 6: The denouement is just about to unfold in the bloody battle between cellular telephony and the WiLL-based limited mobility service offered by basic telephony players and the eventual winner will be the consumer.

Or will he'

The basic operators who will be using code division multiple access (CDMA) have promised to provide the cheapest telecom service in the country and perhaps the world — cheaper than the cost of making a local call over the fixed-line phones with the added bonus of being on the move within a 25 km radius. Even that radius will widen depending on who you talk to in the industry as basic operators clearly intend to stretch the proverbial inch to a mile if the Supreme Court verdict, which is due this month, goes in their favour.

The verdict will put an end to a gripping two-year-long battle between cellular operators (who use a technology called global system for mobile communications — GSM) and the basic operators.

Seldom has a case brought before any court pleased all. This too is unlikely to be any different.

The basic operators claim that the biggest beneficiary will be the customer who, using the CDMA-based handset will be able to make mobile calls for the cost of a local call.

Once the service providers upgrade their infrastructure, the same equipment and the handset can offer a range of more than 250 kilometres. But then it will have to seek permission from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

The cellular mobile operators claim that basic operators will be the true beneficiaries. Companies like Reliance and BSNL will be able to give their customers an unbeatable service.

The third beneficiary will be companies like Qualcomm of the US and UTStarcom which have pioneered this CDMA technology in the US and Unicom of China that started production of CDMA technology based handsets only last year.

Then there are the losers: the cellular operators claim they will be ruined if the court allows basic operators to offer a limited mobility service.

Basic operators counter that argument by claiming that the market is huge for both the GSM and CDMA-based mobile phone services.

The cellular operators agree that the market is big but have sought a level playing field. The cellular operators claim that they had to pay huge entry fees. The all-India total licence fee paid by the cellular operators is Rs 9,000 crore that is on an average Rs 3,000 crore per all India licence. The basic operators, on the other hand, have not paid any fee to offer the limited mobility service.

The all-India total licence fee paid by the basic operators is only Rs 495 crore. To get a level playing field, cellular operators want the government to refund the entry fee paid by them and provide the same interconnect rates as offered to the basic operators.

Cellular operators also want an anomaly in definition of the licence service area removed. The three metros, Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai and West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are separate licence areas for cellular operators but for basic operators it is one licence area. The cellular operators claim that various charges like access rates go up due to this difference. This also needs to be the same as stipulated for the basic operators.

The operators who currently offer CDMA-based WiLL services include Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam, HFCL, Shyam Telelink and Tata Teleservices.

Currently, BSNL has 75,000 WiLL subscribers in the country while MTNL has 40,000 subscribers in Delhi and Mumbai where it offers this service.

Tata Teleservices in Andhra Pradesh has about 40,000 subscribers with HFCL in Punjab cornering around 5,000 and Shyam Telecom has about 4,500 subscribers.

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