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TRAI neutrality compromised, say cellular firms

By Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI JULY 23. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) today extended to August 30, the last date for receiving comments on a consultation paper on unified licensing for basic and cellular mobile services.

The extension came in the wake of representations from consumer organisations and service providers that the paper released on July 16 gave only three weeks for the various stakeholders in the telecom sector to respond to a number of issues. The major issues included domination of the telecom sector by an oligopoly, a much higher licence fees paid by cellular companies and outstanding social obligations of basic phone companies.

While displaying flexibility in extending the last date, the TRAI said it would not heed a request by the cellular companies for staying the consultation process that was traditionally the first phase of any new policy initiative in the telecom sector. The cellular industry had appealed to the TRAI to withdraw the consultation paper till the telecom disputes tribunal delivered a judgement on the legal status of limited mobility (WLL) services.

The cellular companies made it clear that they did not wish to sue the TRAI. At the same time, they pointed out that the TRAI had misrepresented its views in the consultation paper. The cellular sector was completely against the WLL services. It was wrong on the part of the TRAI to suggest in the consultation paper that the cellular industry was only seeking a level playing field with the WLL sector.

The latest missive urged the TRAI to withdraw the consultation paper on the ground that the regulator's neutrality had been compromised. The industry association drew on a recent report, whose authors, after meeting TRAI members, had concluded that ``if the WLL licenses are cancelled (by the courts where an appeal is pending), TRAI will introduce a universal licence as a back-up measure.''

``The position of the TRAI stands out not only because it goes against the very principles of an open and fair consultation, but because it clearly pronounced the TRAI's mind on a matter that has the potential to render the TDSAT (telecom dispute tribunal) infructuous,'' said the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) Director General, T. V. Ramachandran.

However, sources in the TRAI said the COAI's assumption of its neutrality was misplaced. The report's authors had made a presentation to the TRAI, but there was no exchange of views. Therefore, the opinion expressed in the report did not reflect the opinion within the TRAI, the sources clarified.

Cellular companies have been articulate about its views on the consultation paper, but the same could not be said about its rivals in the WLL, who have preferred to play their cards close to their chest. In private, however, they have strongly welcomed the move towards unified licensing. The battle lines for another edition of phone wars are thus drawn.

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