New Delhi, Dec. 17: The Supreme Court today remitted back to the Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) the contentious issue of basic telephony operators offering limited mobility through wireless in local loop (WiLL), but allowed the operators to continue offering the service in the interregnum till the tribunal arrives at a final verdict.
A three-member bench of Chief Justice G. B. Pattanaik, Justices H. K. Sema and S. B. Sinha said in a judgment said the tribunal’s verdict would be final and binding on all parties.
The bench allowed appeals by the Cellular Operators’ Association of India against an order of the telecom tribunal which had upheld the Centre’s decision allowing basic operators to provide mobility services over wireless in local loop. The bench said it was “needless to maintain that the fixed service operators will be bound by the ultimate decision of the tribunal”.
The decision gave both the cellular and basic operators something to cheer about, Abhishek Singhvi, counsel for basic operators said.
The decision allowing basic telephony operators to go ahead with their rollout plans will particularly benefit the Tatas and Reliance. The Tatas launch their WiLL service in Delhi on December 19 (they already offer the service in Andhra and Maharashtra) while Reliance Infocom’s grand rollout begins on December 28—Dhirubhai Ambani’s birth anniversary.
The bench observed that the tribunal had the jurisdiction to adjudicate on matters of policy and determine the validity of the government’s decision to allow basic operators to offer WiLL-M service.
Rejecting a contention of the cellular operators advanced by counsel P. Chidambaram and Ram Jethmalani that “until the fresh decision of the tribunal, fixed service operators may not be permitted to provide WiLL with limited mobility, the judges said, “We are unable to accept this prayer since that would be detrimental to consumers’ interest and also on account of the fact that several fixed service operators have already been providing the service in question.”
On the issue of a “level playing field”, the apex court said the tribunal had the jurisdiction to decide the issue and it was erroneous on the part of the tribunal to hold that it could not decide on the policy matter of the government. The TDSAT will begin fresh adjudication on cellular operators’ demand for a level playing field before permitting basic operators to offer limited mobility.
The main line of today’s judgment is that the tribunal had declined to go into the “voluminous materials” produced during the hearings and that now it should go into all “those materials” produced before it.
The apex court upheld an approach of the tribunal that the consumer would get services at much cheaper rates that would ultimately increase “teledensity” in the country.
In this context, the judges said, “We do not accept the contention of cellular operators to restrain fixed service providers from taking new subscribers on WiLL-M as it will be detrimental to the consumers’ interest.”
While considering all the issues afresh, the tribunal should bear in mind various recommendations of the expert bodies like the Trai and the group of ministers on telecom and information technology, specifically set up by the Prime Minister, the bench recommended.
Cellular operators will have to wait for a final order from TDSAT before they can get compensation on the issue of a level playing field. “It is difficult to assess the financial impact of the order, but we welcome the judgment since it gives us an opportunity to be heard on our demand for a level playing field,” said T. V Ramachandran, secretary general, Cellular Operators Association of India.
The basic operators were also pleased with the verdict.