Given how the government mooted, so many months ago, the idea of a new telecom policy where spectrum was to be delinked from licences and where telcos would be free to share spectrum or even trade in it—provided it was bought in an auction—it’s difficult to see why the fight over intra-circle 3G roaming has been going on for so long. While the telcos cite clauses in their licences that allow such roaming along with the written answers given by the government after the pre-bid 3G open houses were held in 2010, the government cites some other clauses in the licence agreements to show this is not permissible. The short point, however, is that telcos sharing spectrum, once the new policy comes into being, is nothing but intra-circle roaming and given there is a revenue-sharing that has to be done with the government anyway, there is no loss in revenues from this intra-circle roaming. And, in any case, the UASL licence allows intra-circle roaming.
Whatever way the courts choose to interpret this, the real issue is different—there is no getting away from the fact that India has too little spectrum in the 3G band to allow subscribers to really benefit from it, from being able to use data at really high speeds. Right now, the government is objecting to telco A doing intra-circle roaming on telco B’s 3G spectrum. But once telco B has enough subscribers of its own, it wouldn’t even want to allow telco A’s subscribers on its network. So, in the medium term, the government needs to make more 3G spectrum available. The only way it can get this is to get the defence ministry to vacate spectrum, but that has been held up since the defence ministry needs to get its own optic fibre cable (OFC) network in place first—this, however, has been delayed for a long time since BSNL, which has been given the job, hasn’t been able to work at the speed expected. It’s not clear if the telecom ministry has been batting in favour of keeping the contract with BSNL or whether it is in favour of getting private players involved, but even without getting the OFC in place, there are other solutions possible. A look at the spectrum band architecture makes it clear there is 15 MHz of spectrum (1900-1907.5 MHz and 1980-1987.5 MHz) that can be exchanged with defence for some more 3G spectrum—this 15MHz has been reserved for re-farming of the 800 MHz CDMA-mobile spectrum, but this comes up for renewal only in 2022, by which time more spectrum can be got from the defence; and, in any case, existing CDMA mobile devices don't work on the 1900 MHz band. Once this 15 MHz of 3G spectrum is made available in addition to what telcos have already bid for, whether or not the courts decide in favour of intra-circle roaming, India’s shortage situation will have been fixed for some more years.