With the government deciding to issue unified access licences last year, most thought the messy legal battle between the GSM-cellular players and WiLL-mobile players was finally over, and the result would finally be decided in the market place.
The market’s verdict, however, is not clear as yet. While the WiLL-mobile players have got more than a fifth of the country’s total mobile market, GSM-cellular players have grown faster in the year’s first quarter and have higher earnings per customer as well.
Which perhaps is why, as the lead story in ICE World reports, the battle has moved to the second and more decisive phase, of offering third generation or 3G services to customers.
In a nutshell, 3G allows customers to get very high upload/download speeds on their mobile phones, so if you’re looking at watching movies or surfing the net on your mobile in a meaningful manner, 3G is the service you need.
While the global GSM-cellular industry has already launched 3G services, the WiLL-mobile industry is still some time away from being able to do the same.
At the heart of the battle is “spectrum”, or the airwaves on which telecom signals move to and from your phone, at frequencies that are allocated by the government.
Traditionally, the International Telecom Union (ITU) specifies various frequencies for different types of telephony, and most countries tend to follow this as it allows harmonised telephone services, global roaming, and so on.
In India, the National Frequency Allocation Plan is a virtual copy of the ITU standards. So, in 1992 itself the ITU specified that the 1920–1980 MHz and the 2110–2170 MHz band would be reserved for 3G applications, whether those provided by GSM-cellular players or by WiLL-mobile ones didn’t matter.
The problem, however, is that the existing WiLL-mobile players now want part of this 3G spectrum since, they argue, their existing allocation of spectrum in the 800 MHz band is getting exhausted.
Naturally enough, the GSM-cellular industry is protesting and arguing that the 3G band should be given only for 3G services—that is, the WiLL-mobile players can be given this when they launch 3G services, but not for their existing services which are not 3G in nature.
Besides, the GSM-cellular players argue, if the WiLL-players need more spectrum, this should be given in the 1700–1800 MHz band since the licence issued to them clearly states this is the band in which they will get additional spectrum.
If the existing WiLL-mobile services are allowed to use the 3G band, even the telecom regulator acknowledges, this could affect the cellular industry’s abilities to offer 3G services on this frequency band. In other words, the future of the cellular industry could depend upon this.
Normally, a fight as technical as this wouldn’t really hit the headlines, except it now looks as if the telecom regulator, the TRAI, may just agree to open up the 3G spectrum for the existing WiLL-mobile services as well.
Indeed, TRAI officials have said to ICE World that there is no reason why the spectrum policy cannot be changed if it is in the interests of consumers.
Since consumer interest was used as the reason for issuing unified licences to allow WiLL-mobile companies to enter the mobile market—remember how WiLL phones were called the common man’s mobile?—it could be used this time around as well.
In which case, messy court cases and allegations of favouritism could once again become the flavour of the day.