The court, however, admits appeals by Airtel and Vodafone against TDSAT order dismissing their pleas for extension of licences by another 10 years

In a major setback to Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Loop, the Supreme Court, at a special sitting on Sunday, declined to allow their plea for staying the spectrum auction scheduled for Monday and extending their licences by 10 years.

A Bench, comprising Justice Anil R. Dave and Justice S.A. Bobde, had admitted their appeals against a Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) order of January 31 that dismissed the petitions of Vodafone India, Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular seeking extension of their licences in the 900-MHz band in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. The TDSAT said, “Any extension of the expiring licences is bound to undermine the implementation of the policy and that is justification enough and sufficient for the government to decline the extension for the licences.”

The auction is for the 1,800-MHz and 900-MHz bands, whose minimum price is Rs. 49,000 crore.

The Bench, after hearing Additional Solicitor-General K.V. Viswanathan for the Centre and senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi and Abhishek Singhvi for the operators, observed that the operators did not have a monopoly of unlimited licence holding. “The telecom companies have a wrong notion that spectrum belongs to them, while spectrum given to them is only for a specific period of 20 years,” it said.

The Additional Solicitor-General said the government could not hold mock auctions if these companies were allowed to keep the spectrum with them as it would scare away potential bidders. He told the court that any observation from it could take away the vibrancy of the auction.

The companies contended that they had a right for extension of their licences. Denial of extension would also result in the discontinuance of service to its subscribers.

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