Three of India’s largest mobile network operators – Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Essar and Idea Cellular – are reportedly pressing for ‘first right of refusal on the airwaves they hold’ once their respective existing concessions for the frequencies expire. According to India’s Economic Times, the move comes after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) said it would stand by an earlier recommendation that spectrum be refarmed when mobile licences come up for renewal. ‘We recommend that the entity holding the spectrum should have the right of first refusal upon expiry of spectrum rights. In case the entity decides not to exercise their option to renew, the spectrum should be auctioned again in a fair and transparent manner wherein the entity who did not exercise its option, is also allowed to participate,’ Bharti Airtel was cited as saying in a communication sent last week to telecom secretary R Chandrasekhar.
If the TRAI’s proposals are followed however, during the renewal of their concessions operators will be required to vacate the 900MHz spectrum and move instead to the 1800MHz band, with the former frequencies to then be auctioned off with a view to be used for high-speed mobile data services. The TRAI’s official standpoint on the matter is that: ‘The Authority recommends that spectrum in 800MHz and 900MHz bands should be refarmed at the time of renewal of the licences. For holders of spectrum in 900MHz band, substitute spectrum should only be assigned in 1800MHz band and for licence holders of 800MHz band, spectrum should be assigned in 450MHz/1900MHz bands.’ Such a decision may have in part been prompted by continued complaints from those cellcos that do not currently have 900MHz spectrum, and argue that they are at a disadvantage; operators such as Tata Teleservices (TTSL), Reliance Communications (RCOM), Aircel and Uninor have in the past claimed that their capital expenditure is up to three times that of those with access to the 900MHz band.