Two days after the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) wrote to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) opposing its move to allow fourth-generation (4G) spectrum holders like Reliance Industries (RIL) to provide voice services, RIL hit back saying the industry body was trying to mislead the government. It said the issues raised by the COAI were frivolous, motivated and anti-consumer.
The COAI's core membership includes private cellular operators Aircel, Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular, Loop Mobile (India) and Vodafone India.
In a strongly worded letter to DoT, Reliance said, "The COAI has tried to associate the implementation of the UL (Unified Licence) regime and the migration of existing licences, including ISPs (internet service providers), with BWA (broadband wireless access) spectrum to the new regime with violations of licence conditions by their association members which reflects the malafide intent of the COAI to mislead people and put pressure on the government to take a lenient view on the serious breaches by its association members."
The COAI had said it was "distressed by attempts" on the part of the DoT to give "undue benefits" to RIL, owned by Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man. RIL is the only company with nationwide 4G broadband airwaves. "DoT is trying to illegally enlarge the scope of RIL's services," the industry body had alleged, adding that backdoor entry for voice services should not be allowed as it would cause "a significant loss to the exchequer and is discriminatory".
Countering these allegations, RIL said, "The option of migrating is equally available to all existing licencees under different categories... no special permission has been granted to ISPs with BWA spectrum to migrate to UL that allows voice service. Rather, an additional fee of Rs 1,658 crore for the migration of ISP licencees with BWA spectrum has been proposed, even though the same was not recommended by TRAI."
Voice services have been always allowed under 4G when paired with the right licence, RIL claimed, adding that the GSM (global system for mobile communications) operators were scared of new competition. The letter goes on to accuse the incumbent telecom companies of hiking tariffs arbitrarily after licences of many telecom companies were cancelled last year.
A move by RIL, which is still preparing to launch high-speed 4G internet services, into the voice market will intensify competition and hurt rivals such as Bharti Airtel and the Indian unit of Vodafone group.
Reliance has invested Rs 12,800 crore to acquire 4G spectrum and upon shifting to the new Unified Licence regime firms like it which own BWA airwaves but have only an internet licence can provide voice services along with high-speed internet if they pay a fee of Rs. 1,658 crore.
The shift to a Unified Licence regime on the payment of Rs. 1,658 crore should not be allowed, the COAI, however, had said.
Sources told NDTV that the government is likely to ignore COAI's opposition and will soon give the green signal to the new Unified Licence regime.