India roundup: DoT admits to spectrum paucity; DoT twisting Vodafone’s arm over UL; telcos to offer SMS in regional languages

17 Nov 2014

India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has acknowledged that there is a shortage of spectrum available to private telcos, admitting that the limited access to frequencies is the main reason for slower mobile broadband speeds, the Economic Times writes, citing an internal DoT presentation. The briefing suggested that a new policy framework should provide for sharing and trading of spectrum to allow operators to aggregate their holdings into more efficient contiguous lots. Further, the DoT suggested that smoothing the way for consolidation in the market might also alleviate the pressure, making more spectrum available for each provider. The DoT’s presentation follows on the heels of its rejection of proposals from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) suggesting that the DoT delay the upcoming spectrum auction until sufficient frequencies were freed up from the Ministry of Defence and from state-owned telcos.

Meanwhile, Vodafone India has withdrawn its case against the DoT from the Delhi High Court after the justices agreed that the matter should be considered by the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT). Vodafone claims that the DoT is ‘arm-twisting, abusing its position/powers as a licensor to delay and deny’ the telco’s entitlement to use the spectrum obtained in the auctions, by refusing to sign its unified licence (UL) unless Vodafone agrees to ‘restrictive clauses’ regarding 3G roaming. In an earlier ruling, TDSAT had upheld telcos’ rights to offer 3G services outside their licensed area via roaming agreements and the UK-backed cellco requested that the DoT remove the relevant ‘illegal’ clauses from its UL. However, at the eleventh-hour, the DoT informed Vodafone that it could not remove the clauses. Vodafone claims that this refusal is taking advantage of Vodafone’s ‘vulnerable’ position, referring to the fact that if the UL is not signed by 29 November, when its current licence expires, 22 million of the cellco’s subscribers – those in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata – would face disruption to their services.

Indian cellcos are considering offering SMS in vernacular languages to help replace non-voice revenues lost through the adoption of instant messaging applications, the Economic Times reports. Spokespeople for the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) explained that there is a substantial portion of the market that is not comfortable using English to communicate on mobile phones, and that new software from Google for a Hindi keyboard on smartphones could help reach that niche. As well as Hindi, other regional languages are expected to be made available soon. According to the COAI, around 70% of handsets sold in India are featurephones and the lion’s share of new subscribers are rural users. The lobby group suggests that growth in this market could plug the gap left by the loss of an estimated USD1.2 billion in potential revenues from SMS and value added services (VAS) attributed to the arrival of over-the-top (OTT) messaging services.