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Licence unifies Tatas, Ambanis

Calcutta, Aug. 22: The Tatas and the Ambanis — traditional business rivals — are coming together to lobby hard for a unified licence in the telecom sector that will cover cellular services, limited mobility services, fixed-line telephony and possibly long-distance telephony.

The two business conglomerates — unnerved by the telecom regulator’s recommendation to the department of telecom (DoT) for a review of the basic service licence conditions — plan to make a joint presentation on the issue to communications minister Arun Shourie.

Earlier this week, Tata chief Ratan Tata met Shourie in the capital and made the first overture in this regard. He will meet Shourie again next week, with Mukesh Ambani.

The Ambani-owned Reliance Infocomm and Tata Teleservices — which offer limited mobility services across the country — have been hit hard by the Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal’s order that put fetters on their WiLL-mobile service by directing them to confine their operations to the short distance charging area (SDCA) — roughly a radius of 25 kms.

The two service providers had got round the restrictions by offering their subscribers the facility of call forwarding and multiple number registrations — both of which have been challenged by cellular operators.

Even as the TDSAT prepares to hear the cellular and the basic telephony operators’ arguments and counter-arguments on the issue, the two business houses are trying to advocate the virtues of a unified licence which, if granted, will make the whole dispute irrelevant.

Sources said both the Tatas and the Ambanis have favoured the idea of a unified licence — a concept floated for discussion by Trai — on the ground that it will create a level playing field for all telecom operators.

The TDSAT order had directed the government to work towards the creation of a level playing field, and had given it four months to come up with a viable solution. The basic telephone operators say the unified licence will do just that, but the cellular operators are opposed to it.

The cellular operators have until now been crying themselves hoarse on the need to create a level playing field in the face of the telecom onslaught by Reliance Infocomm.

A Reliance Infocomm spokesperson said the company was prepared to pay an additional licence fee to ensure that their subscribers continued to enjoy the full benefits of “mobility” afforded by the call forwarding and multiple number registration facilities.

“The multiple number registration scheme is not illegal, nor is the call forwarding system. The telecom regulator wants to ensure that the consumer gets the full range of benefits. The withdrawal of these facilities will only hurt the consumers,” he said.

Sources have pointed out that if these facilities are withdrawn on the basis of TDSAT’s order issued on August 8, the WiLL-Mobile service will become unviable. A senior RIL official admitted that the business model of the company would be jeopardised if that should happen, and said it could not afford to stop the facilities.

“The cellular operators are demanding a ban on these facilities as they can no longer charge the customers a hefty roaming charge. If the government forces us to withdraw the call forwarding facility, it is the customers who will be left in the lurch,” he said.

Sources said DoT is already in the process of reviewing the licence terms for basic telephony and WiLL operators and may come up with a statement next week.

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