In a major relief to Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular Ltd, Telecom tribunal TDSAT today upheld their plea to provide 3G intra-circle roaming services, while also quashing the cumulative penalty of Rs 1,200 crore imposed on them by Department of Telecom.
"We are allowing all the petitions," said a TDSAT bench headed by Justice Aftab Alam.
The bench said that 3G ICR agreement signed by Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular is not violative of licence agreement.
Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular had approached TDSAT against Department of Telecom order to stop 3G intra-circle roaming agreement under which they had also agreed to acquire customers in area where they did not win spectrum.
Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular won 3G spectrum in 2010 auction. Airtel won 3G spectrum in 13 out of 22 telecom service area for Rs 12,295.46, Vodafone in 9 for Rs 11,617.86 and Idea Cellular in 11 circles for Rs 5,768.59 crore.
DoT issued notice to Airtel, Vodafone and Idea on December 23, 2011 asking companies to stop 3G ICR within 24 hours and report compliance but the order was challenged by telecom operators.
Tata Teleservices and Aircel too had signed 3G ICR but immediately called off their agreement after DoT issued notice to them.
Airtel sought access to Vodafone's 3G network in four service area- Maharashtra, Kolkata, Haryana and UP East.
Vodafone accessed six 3G circles of Airtel- Assam, Bihar, Karnataka, North East, Rajasthan and UP West besides 7 circles of Idea Cellular- Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, UP West and Punjab. Idea is yet to start 3G service in Punjab.
Under the agreement, Idea Cellular secured right to provide 3G service using Vodafone's network in Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Chennai and Kolkata.
In July 2012, TDSAT gave split verdict where one of the bench member ruled in favour and other member ordered against it.
DoT again issued notice to telecom operators asking them to stop 3G ICR service along with penalty cumulatively amounting to about Rs 1,200 crore which was quashed by the tribunal.
Telecom operators-Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular then approached Delhi High Court which ruled in favour of DoT's decision to hold the 3G roaming pact of the telecom major as illegal.
Telecom operators then moved the Supreme Court against order of HC and sought that the case be transferred to TDSAT. The Apex court allowed telecom operators to move their case to TDSAT in September 2013.
"TDSAT had recognised the stand of telecom operators on the basis of which they made aggressive bids for 3G spectrum.
"The judgement also benefits customers who will have more choices now besides operators, who can now freely invest in network coverage," Industry body Cellular Operators Association of India Director General Rajan S Mathews told PTI.
He played down apprehension of the decision affecting value of spectrum in future auction and selective bidding by operators in some circles.
"We know there is not enough spectrum available. Though telecom operators may go for spectrum sharing or this kind of agreement but everyone wants to be on drivers seat. If there is level playing and spectrum auctions are made reasonable, people will go for it," Mathews said.
In 2010, there was no pan-India bidder for 3G auctions while wireless broadband spectrum auctions held immediately after this saw Infotel Broadband Services, now Reliance Jio Infocomm, emerging as only pan-India winner.
There had been no successful pan-India bidder during spectrum auctions held in November 2012, March 2013 and February 2014.
Mathews sees possibility of 3G ICR kind of agreement with other type of spectrum as well.
"If a technology allows to deliver some kind of benefits, I don't see it makes sense to put any obstacles in efficient use of technology," Mathews added.