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Thursday, 03 November 2011 00:00
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Kill it before it grows

Intro: Despite the fact the licence allows it, and the govt's written clarifications, that seems to be the policy on 3G roaming

Sheriff John Brown always hated me;

For what I don’t know.

Every time that I plant a seed

He said, "Kill it before it grows.”

—I shot the sheriff, Bob Marley

Kafka couldn’t have scripted it better. The government tells private firms what services they can offer which encourages them to pay R68,000 crore in the 3G bid and to invest another R15,000-20,000 crore in rolling out networks, it then tells them that this is illegal, when shown that the permissions were in writing the government says “it is clear that we will go by what (we said) and we are trying to understand what (we have) said on this”!

Government procedures being what they are, it’ll probably take forever to locate the question and answers it issued before the 3G auction in mid-2010 and the UASL licences that have been issued to various telecom firms, so it’s a good idea to look at what they say on the policy of intra-circle roaming that has got the government in enough of a tizzy to say the services are illegal.

But before we begin, it’s important to understand that there’s no such thing as a 3G licence even though all of us in the media use it. The operative licence is the Universal Access Service Licence (UASL) and 2G/3G are just spectrum bands where spectrum is given to various telcos, the 2nd Generation and 3rd Generation just referring to the type of services that can be offered on the spectrum band, and the essential difference between them is really the speed—so Internet services on 3G are much faster than on 2G, though they can be offered on either 2G or 3G bands.

To understand what the UASL licence allows a licensee to offer, clause 2.2(a)(i) says it “covers collection, carriage, transmission and delivery of voice and/or non-voice MESSAGES … and includes provision of all types of access services … Internet Telephony, Internet Services and Broadband Services”. Since 3G is “broadband service”, any UASL licence holder can offer such services. Which is why, when firms won the 3G bid in a circle, like Vodafone did in the case of Delhi for instance, it was not given a new 3G licence, instead it was given a letter saying a new condition (23.7) was to be inserted into its UASL licence for Delhi. What did that say? “The licensee is also authorised to use the 3G spectrum block for provisioning of Telecom Access Services as defined in the ‘Scope of the license’ in [clause 2.2(a)(i)]”.

That said, the question is whether a UASL licensee who does not have 3G spectrum in a circle can offer these services in that circle—that is, if Aircel, which has a UASL licence for Delhi, and does not have 3G spectrum in Delhi, can it enter into an agreement with Vodafone and use its network to offer 3G services? This is called intra-circle roaming and this is what the government is now saying is illegal.

Even though it probably made sense to allow intra-circle roaming since it means telecom firms can share infrastructure instead of adding to expenses, the government did not allow this till a few years ago. So, if Aircel was

offering 3G services to its Delhi subscribers four years ago, it would definitely have been illegal. But on June 12, 2008, the telecom ministry amended the UASL licences to say “A Licensee may enter into mutual commercial agreements for intra service area roaming facilities”.

In mid-2008, when the process of auctioning for 3G began, the government had a series of meetings to provide clarity to would-be bidders. The questions and answers were then collated and issued by the government along with the bidding documents, so they are legally binding. Question 11 asked if “3G roaming is mandated or whether it will be a bilateral decision between operators?”—that is, can Aircel demand that Vodafone allow it intra-circle roaming in Delhi. At present, the answer was, “mandatory roaming is not part of the Government’s telecoms policy. Roaming arrangements are based on bilateral decision between operators”.

Question 12 gets more specific, “will intra circle roaming be allowed in areas where an operator does not have a 3G network?”—this is the Aircel-Vodafone question. Here’s the answer: “Intra-circle roaming will be governed by the UAS/CMTS licence provisions and applicable Government regulations”.

Question 48 asks the same thing but in some more detail, but the answer is the same, “The roaming policy is applicable to the licences and not to specific spectrum bands. Hence, roaming will be permitted. However, at present, mandatory roaming or MVNO is not part of the government’s telecoms policy”. Answer 230: “The provision for intra-circle roaming is as applicable to the service licence, and is not different for/specific to the spectrum being currently auctioned”. Answer 371: “There is no mandatory roaming as on date. Roaming arrangements are as per terms of applicable licence, TRAI recommendations and bilateral arrangements between operators”.

Given all this, it is not quite clear just what the government thinks is illegal about intra-circle roaming. And given that all these documents have been created by the telecom ministry, it’s not clear why the government has not been able to read these documents to be able to, as telecom secretary

R Chandrasekhar told The Financial Express, “understand what (we have) said on this”.

Kafka or Bob Marley? Take your pick, depending upon your literary taste!

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 12 November 2011 17:18 )
 

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