New Delhi, Nov. 20: The countdown to the end of the bruising battle over WiLL (wireless in local loop) began today with the Supreme Court starting its final hearing on the contentious issue of extending the limited mobility facility to fixed-line operators.
Cellular operators represented by former finance minister P. Chidambaram argued that allowing fixed-line operators to offer any kind of mobile services would infringe on their exclusive domain.
But analysts feel the case could also be referred back to the Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT), which is within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. The limited mobility issue has been been hotly debated for the last two years.
Appearing on behalf of the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI), Chidambaram argued that the TDSAT had erred in its judgment since it had failed to apply the powers that had been bestowed on it by the government. He also said that the permission granted to fixed line operators to offer mobility was in violation of the licence agreement.
A three-member bench comprising Chief Justice G. B. Pattanaik, Justice H. K. Sema and Justice S. B. Sinha today listened to arguments by cellular operators, who will continue their argument till tomorrow afternoon. Over the next two days, the bench will hear fixed line operators and a public interest litigation for allowing limited mobility.
Besides Chidambaram, the cellular operators were represented by a battery of lawyers including Ram Jethmalani, C. S. Vaidyanathan and Manjul Vajpayee, while the government was represented by Additional Solicitor-General Soli Sorabjee and fixed line operators by Abhishekh Singhvi and Ramjee Srinivasan. The PIL was represented by Ashok Desai.
Chidambaram argued that TDSAT had the powers to go into the policy aspects as an appellate authority, but it refused to take up many key issues on the plea that it was not within its jurisdiction. This has to be seen against the background of the National Telecom Policy 1999 and the migration agreement signed by all private telecom operators, he said. Under the NTP 1999 and migration policy, in case of a dispute between operators and the government, between the operators themselves, or operators and the regulator, the operators can approach only the TDSAT and not any high court.
Earlier, in March this year, TDSAT had dismissed the petition filed by the cellular operators who were objecting to the idea of granting fixed line service providers a facility that had the potential of knocking them out of business. The cellular operators had moved the Supreme Court challenging the tribunal’s judgment.
Chidambaram also argued that “the three access providers—cellular mobile, fixed and cable—were separate water-tight compartments and mobile services were reserved for cellular operators.”
He said cellular operators had no problem with WiLL itself if it was used for last-mile connectivity, but when used for mobility in the short distance charging area it amounted to an encroachment on the domain of cellular operators. He argued that while WiLL was an application of a technology, WiLL mobility was a provision of service.