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Of cheetahs and swans

Notwithstanding the alleged spectrum scarcity, new applicants have queued up for unified licences, which will allow them to offer everything from mobile telephony to fixed telephony to internet services.

By Amit Mukherjee | Print Edition: October 7, 2007

Indian telecom’s weird spectrum story is getting weirder by the day. That’s not just because five different parties (armed forces, department of telecom, GSM operators, CDMA operators, and the telecom regulator, TRAI) are involved in the melee, it’s also because claims and counter claims are further muddying the waters.

We’ll come to that in a bit, but here’s the more interesting bit: Notwithstanding the alleged spectrum scarcity, new applicants have queued up for unified licences, which will allow them to offer everything from mobile telephony to fixed telephony to internet services.

Their names (and profiles) are interesting to say the least. There’s a Swan that has applied for 14 licences (every circle needs a separate licence, and there are 23 circles in the country), a Cheetah that wants two, Bycell five, Alliance Infratech and Datacom Solutions 22 each, S. Tel. six. Besides, there are others like real estate developer Parsvnath, which has also applied for 22 licences.

Telecom Minister Raja
 

Of course, the existing players are part of the beeline. The Essar group has applied for 21 licences, the Tatas three, Spice 20, Idea nine and HFCL 21. In all there are 160 fresh applications that have piled up, never mind that there are 136 operators already in the market.

Coming back to the spectrum brouhaha, DoT officials say that there are 22 licensees who have not been able to kick-start operations because they haven’t been allotted any spectrum, simply because there’s none to spare. The industry regulator, TRAI, however, says that’s far from the case.

In its recent recommendations it states that “the allocated spectrum with existing operators by itself can serve up to 450 million subscribers, or more than twice the present 190 million mobile subscribers,” and slams operators for not optimising the usage of spectrum.

Needless to say, the operators have a very different story to tell. “The GSM operators have been facing a severe crunch on spectrum and waiting for months or even years to get spectrum,” says T.V. Ramachandran, Director General of the GSM operators’ lobby, COAI. In fact, earlier this month, COAI issued a legal notice to the DoT demanding that GSM operators be given requisite spectrum as per the criteria laid down by the government.

Ramachandran claims that the nonavailability of spectrum is affecting operators both financially as well as operationally, since their network roll-outs or expansion are affected.

It’s unlikely that the spectrum saga will reach a denouement before next year. For a couple of reasons: One, the spectrum policy is hanging fire (it was expected end of June) and, two, the armed forces are unlikely to vacate spectrum before early next year. And that’s the best case scenario.

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