Operators call on PM to intervene in 3G roaming issue

23 Nov 2011

The top executives of three of India’s larger mobile network operators have reportedly called on the prime minster Manmohan Sign to refund the fees they paid for their respective 3G concessions amid continued debate over the issue of roaming for such services. According to the Times of India, Bharti Airtel CEO Sunil Mittal, Vittorio Colao, CEO of UK-based Vodafone Group, which owns Vodafone Essar, and Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla Group, one of the largest shareholders in Idea Cellular, wrote a joint letter to the PM. The trio are reported to have called for a refund of their 3G auction payments, along with interest and compensation charges should 3G roaming be disallowed. With the letter also copied to finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, telecom minister Kapil Sibal and Department of Telecommunications (DoT) secretary R Chandrashekhar, among others, the three executives are understood to have said that unless contracts are honoured via the PM’s ‘urgent intervention’ the reputation of what was previously seen as a transparent sale process would be ‘harmed irreparably’. Further, the trio argue that failure to resolve the issue satisfactorily may ‘also deter further investments desperately required to connect the unconnected.’

The Times of India cites sources within the three aforementioned mobile operators as claiming that resolution of the matter via meetings with the Ministry of Communications (MoC) and senior DoT officials has been attempted unsuccessfully. Key to the cellco’s argument are claims that the DoT has reneged on licence-related amendments and pre-3G bid-related clarifications, with the letter to the PM stating: ‘This is tantamount to reneging on the government’s promises made through technology neutral licences, the 2008 licence amendment and the Q&A confirmations provided before the 3G auctions’. It is argued that prior to the 3G spectrum sale, when asked whether operators that did not hold third-generation frequencies would be allowed to roam on the networks of other licensees, the DoT’s ‘unqualified affirmative’ response was: ‘Roaming policy is applicable to the licences and not to specific spectrum bands. Hence roaming will be permitted.’ As such, the operators argue that if 3G roaming is now not allowed then this would represent a ‘clear breach of contract and pre-auction confirmations given by the government’.

In separate but related news meanwhile, the Indian Economic Times reports that the controversy surrounding 3G roaming deals may be automatically resolved when the new National Telecoms Policy is implemented early next year. Citing an unnamed telecoms ministry official, the news source claims that the new regulations will introduce a pan-India mobile permit, doing away with the existing system of operators requiring a separate licence for each of the country’s 22 telecom circles. Should this be the case, if operators migrate to the new regime the issue of roaming on other cellco’s networks would no longer be an issue.