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Split verdict on 3G roaming

New Delhi, July 3: Telecom tribunal TDSAT today gave a split verdict on whether mobile operators could offer 3G services beyond their licence areas through roaming pacts.

While TDSAT chairman Justice S.B. Sinha ruled in favour of the operators on the grounds of the procedural lapses by the government, member P.K. Rastogi supported the telecom department.

Justice Sinha allowed the operators’ plea against the government’s directive to stop roaming, saying the order violated natural justice.

Sinha feels the department of telecom (DoT) had not followed the proper procedure, and operators were not given proper time to put forward their views. He has asked the DoT to start the procedure afresh by giving proper time to operators to respond.

He said it would “be reasonable to hold a final decision that the DoT would consider the terms and conditions of each agreement separately, so that the terms and conditions contained therein may be analysed and the decisions are rendered thereafter”.

Rastogi dismissed the appeal of telecom operators saying they can’t provide 3G services by having a mere 2G licence.

The operators can now appeal in the higher courts. The carriers are allowed to continue their services until the government dispatches a new order, a lawyer on the case told reporters.

“The government will take a legal view before deciding on its next move,” said R. Chandrashekhar, telecom secretary.

The TDSAT has a sanctioned strength of three, including the chairman. However, after its technical member retired, the tribunal now has two people, which led to the split verdict.

The Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) had concluded its marathon hearing on the plea in April.

The tribunal’s decision was keenly watched by Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular — the country's top three carriers by revenue — which have effectively extended their 3G services to most parts of the country because of mutual roaming agreements.

Miffed operators

Bharti, Vodafone’s Indian unit and Idea had earlier said their roaming pacts complied with licensing rules. They had also told telecom minister Kapil Sibal that a refund to bidders or re-run of auctions could be inevitable if they were not allowed to provide data-rich 3G services in circles where they didn’t have spectrum.

Since none of the operators won 3G spectrum in all 22 circles, they entered into agreements with each other, which allowed them to offer their own high-speed services and sell their own 3G connections in circles where they did not have their own 3G network.

However, the DoT and Trai have questioned these agreements, terming them illegal. Last December, the telecom ministry also wanted operators to stop the services immediately. In the same month, the TDSAT told the government not to take any “coercive” action until it issued a verdict.

Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and Tata Teleservices contend that they have 2G licence to operate in all 22 circles and the licence also allows them to provide “all types of access services” be it 2G, 3G or 4G.