Vodafone India, Idea Cellular barred from using Bharti Airtel’s network

A day after the Delhi High Court ordered telecom service providers Vodafone India and Idea Cellular to stop offering 3G services to new customers in circles where they don’t hold spectrum licences — including Karnataka — many retailers continue to sell connections on 3G data plans.

Though the court is yet to decide on existing connections — where both operators use Bharti Airtel’s network through inter- and intra-circle roaming arrangements — the verdict is clear on adding new connections. Sources in Bharti Airtel said the service provider was bound by the court order to desist from adding new subscribers through these two operators, i.e., Vodafone India and Idea Cellular. “Even if the connections are sold, there is no question of activating them,” the sources said.

Airtel itself is facing litigation in the Supreme Court, where, last Wednesday, it was directed to stop adding new customers in seven circles where it does not have 3G licenses.

Confusion prevails

Most retailers The Hindu spoke to were either unaware of the decision or said they were yet to receive formal communication from telecom operators. While the customer care services of both operators failed to answer queries on the state of new connections, authorised vendors appeared to be as enthusiastic with their sales as ever. Others said there was too much confusion in the market, and directed customers to bigger showrooms or head offices. The bigger vendors, however, appeared to have got a communiqué to stop selling 3G products.

As far back as December 2011, five months after the service providers inked a pact to share 3G networks across circles, the Department of Telecom (DoT) had opposed what it termed as “illegal subletting” of airwaves. In another order on April 15, the DoT issued notices and slapped penalties on the two service providers.

3.5 lakh subscribers

In Karnataka, Vodafone and Idea together have around 3.5 lakh 3G subscribers, who use airwaves licensed by Airtel, industry sources said. Two other players holding 3G licences here are Aircel and DoCoMo, but they don’t sublet spectrum. In all, Airtel owns 3G licences in 13 circles, Idea Cellular in 11 and Vodafone in 9, out of a total 22 telecom circles.

3G networks have been growing rapidly in Karnataka, where service providers claim there is tough competition over data plans. Airtel sources said that in late 2012, its 3G revenues overtook 2G revenues. “Today, 3G is a key market for any player. Data consumption is on the rise and every operator is seeing it as a major source of revenue,” a top Airtel official said. Vodafone declined to comment as the matter is sub judice, while Idea could not be contacted for a response.

BSNL may gain

Meanwhile, state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd., which has licences to operate 3G networks throughout the country, is likely to benefit if there is a situation where customers decide to port en masse from the two operators, a senior BSNL official told The Hindu. BSNL was the first to offer 3G networks in 32 cities in Karnataka in February 2010. But, he added, the numbers of 3G customers for the state-run unit are far below 2G users. Of 68.7 lakh users in Karnataka, only 1.7 lakh log on to 3G networks through BSNL.