Apart from the fact that the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) had initially welcomed the government’s decision to charge Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) firms like Reliance Jio Infocomm R1,658 crore to be able to offer voice services, what needs to be kept in mind is the move is part of the government’s larger policy to move to service-neutral licensing. So, operators need to get just one licence and then, once they bid for spectrum in the open market, they are free to offer any type of service—voice or data—on it. While COAI and arch-rival Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India (AUSPI) have united to oppose the move to allow BWA players to offer voice services, when the spectrum was first auctioned in 2010, the Notice Inviting Applications was clear telcos would be allowed to offer the services their licences allowed—so, if a BWA firm bought an ISP license, it would be allowed to offer only data services; if, on the other hand, it bought a mobile license (called the Universal Access Service License), it could offer voice services. If BWA firms like Reliance or Qualcomm—it later sold 49% of its equity to Bharti Airtel with a provision to completely exit—chose to buy ISP licenses, this was because with 525 firms in queue for a UASL license, they had no hope of getting a UASL license.
In any case, with BWA firms having spent over R13,000 crore for a pan-Indian licence, it can hardly be said they have not already paid large sums to the government. It is equally true that while the companies have paid R1,658 crore to be allowed to offer voice services—the Telecom Commission, in any case, approved a proposal to offer UASL licences without spectrum at R22 crore last month—offering this in the 2.3 GHz band that BWA firms have is still a technological challenge given the lack of handsets or eco-system in place at the moment.