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Spectrum circus

Martin Julius Esslin must be chortling from beyond the grave. The famous author and literary critic coined the term, “The Theatre of the Absurd”, to describe works by several famous authors from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Print Edition: February 10, 2008

All tangled up: Telecom Minister A. Raja
Telecom Minister A Raja
Martin Julius Esslin must be chortling from beyond the grave. The famous author and literary critic coined the term, “The Theatre of the Absurd”, to describe works by several famous authors from the 1920s to the 1960s. All these works had some common elements: satire, parody, a cast of characters trapped in hopeless conditions, cliches and often nonsensical wordplay.

Esslin used the term in a literary context, but its description fits India’s tryst with the allocation of additional spectrum to telcos to a T. Just when it seemed that the issue of spectrum allocation was reaching a denouement, the conclusion has been confounded with confusion. In the latest twist to the tale, the Central Vigilance Commission has trained its guns on the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) over the allocation of this scarce resource.

After dilly-dallying for nearly two years, the government announced the release of fresh spectrum to nine applicants. This came as a major respite to the telecom industry, which has been clamouring for the same in order to expand its networks and offer higher-end services.

But amidst allegations of an “unfair allocation procedures” and “distortion of rules by DoT”, the CVC has, suo moto, issued a questionnaire to DoT seeking replies on why it overstepped its brief. DoT has been asked to explain why some operators have been allocated 6.2 MHz of start-up spectrum per circle, when the licence agreements specified that service providers would be given only 4.4 MHz of radio frequencies to launch services. The CVC pointed out that licence conditions entitled each operator to a “cumulative maximum” of only 6.2 MHz of radio frequencies per circle. All existing GSM operators such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, Aircell and Spice would have gained additional spectrum as a result of DoT’s decision. Now, in all likelihood, the Telecom Commission, which is scheduled to meet on January 28, will ask GSM operators to return the excess spectrum. This will open the proverbial can of worms; and it is very likely that the matter will get embroiled in litigation— leading to further delays.

There doesn’t seem to be any easy way out of the mess. Result: the Indian consumer will suffer in the short- to medium-term. But the government will do well to learn an important lesson it should have learnt a long time ago: policy issues have to be dealt with with transparency and fairness. But given its track record, this lesson, too, will be lost on it.

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