Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular seek PM's intervention

The ongoing controversy over the 3G roaming pacts between service providers reached Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's doorsteps on Tuesday, with heads of three leading mobile companies — Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular — demanding refund of spectrum auction payments if such roaming is disallowed by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT).

“In the event that 3G ICR [intra-circle roaming] is now deemed impermissible, then, it would be a clear breach of our contract and the pre-auction confirmation given by the government. In that eventuality, we request that our spectrum auction payments be refunded to us with interest along with compensation for all the capital investments made by us,” said a letter to the Prime Minister signed by Bharti Enterprises Chairman and Group CEO Sunil Mittal, Aditya Birla Group (Idea Cellular) Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla and London-based Vodafone Group Plc Group Chief Executive Vittorio Colao.

Following complaints regarding the “illegal” 3G roaming pacts among these three service providers, as no one has a pan-India 3G licence, the DoT had sought opinion from the Law Ministry on the issue as it feels that these roaming agreements are in violation of the terms and conditions of 3G licences issued last year. Tata Teleservices and Aircel have also signed a similar roaming agreement to offer services in telecom circles where they do not have licences.

Government sources said the Law Ministry too had supported the DoT's view that such spectrum-sharing agreements among service providers are in violation of licensing norms and conditions.

Notably, exceeding all expectations, the 3G auction held last year had helped the government garner around Rs.68,000 crore.

“Irreparable harm”

Strongly pleading the case for ICR, the letter said: “We seek your most urgent intervention to ensure that contract and promises are honoured… otherwise the reputation of an acclaimed, transparent auction will be harmed irreparably. We apprehend that, if self-serving vested interests are allowed to derail a sector which has been India's poster child of reforms and liberalisation, and has delivered world class communication services, it will adversely impact the common man... This will also deter further investments desperately required to connect the unconnected,” the letter said.

The three business leaders also pointed out that the licences allotted to the companies were specifically amended in 2008 to incorporate the right to do intra-circle roaming, without any conditions. “We are completely astonished to hear that the government is now considering a reversal of its earlier stated position and seeking to question the legality or permissibility of the 3G ICR arrangement. This is tantamount to reneging on the government's promises made through the technology-neutral licence and the 2008 licence amendment and the Q&A confirmations provided before the 3G auction,” the letter added.

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