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Interconnect row in Mahajan’s court

New Delhi, Jan. 18: The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has asked communications minister Pramod Mahajan to break the impasse in the interconnection row between cellular operators and limited mobility players that has snowballed into a major controversy.

AirTel’s Sunil Bharti Mittal and BPL Mobile’s Rajeev Chadrashekar today sought the Prime Minister’s intervention, but failed to get any positive response. The two operators wanted to meet Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but were asked to meet Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the Prime Minister.

The 20-minute meeting was also attended by Vinod Vaish, secretary in the department of telecommunications (DoT).

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said, “The meeting with the representatives of cellular operators was fixed late last night. Initially, they were asked to meet the cabinet secretary. However, by late last night, they were asked to meet Brajesh Mishra.”

At the meeting, the cellular operators stuck to their demand while the communications ministry, represented by Vaish, urged them to restore the connection with the fixed line operators. The meeting concluded without any immediate solution in sight since the cellular operators insisted that interconnection cannot be offered without a level playing field.

Sources said, “At the end of the meeting, the cellular operators were told that the issue will be dealt by the communications minister when he returns from his trip abroad.”

Meanwhile, the cellular operators have decided to appear before both the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) and Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) to plead their case.

Bharti chief Sunil Mittal refused to comment on the meeting with the Cabinet secretary but said, “We will follow the legal procedures; our petition is to be heard at TDSAT on Monday and our representatives will also go to Trai.”

On Thursday, Trai had sent a showcause notice to the five operators with 72 hours' time to reply in person and in writing since they had failed to restore interconnection to the limited mobile service providers in the circles they operate.

However, pre-empting any drastic move by the regulator, cellular operators — Bharti, Fascel, Sterling, Idea — and the industry association filed a petition on Friday with TDSAT challenging Trai’s showcause notice, which threatens penal action and cancellation of licences.

The fixed line and cellular subscribers in Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat continued to face call drops and network congestion. Both cellular and the two government-owned fixed line operators — Bharat Sanchar Nigam and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam (MTNL) — made claims and counter-claims about blocking of calls by the other.

A senior Bharti executive said, “This is a deliberate attempt to arm-twist us to give interconnection on unequal terms. We have written to MTNL about the disruption in service.”

An MTNL official in Delhi said, “We have had a normal problem of network congestion. But it has aggravated since yesterday, because subscribers, both cellular and fixed line, are making calls again and again either to the same number or to check whether the network is working.”

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