Millennium Post

Airtel can’t add new 3G customers in 7 zones: SC

The Supreme Court on Friday restrained Airtel from offering its roaming services to new customers in seven circles where it does not have license for 3G spectrum. The court, however, asked the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) not to take coercive steps on Rs 350 crore penalty imposed on it for illegally providing intra-circle 3G roaming facilities.

The seven circles where Airtel does not have licences to provide 3G services are Kolkata, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh East and Kerala.

Before passing the order, a bench of Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice Vikramajit Sen said that it was concerned that its direction should not affect millions of customers, including rickshaw pullers, who use mobile phones. The court issued notices and sought response of the central government, DoT and Reliance Communication Ltd within two weeks. It said thereafter the respondents will file rejoinder within two weeks and posted the matter for hearing on 9 May.

The bench also allowed Vodafone Group of Companies and Idea Celluar Ltd, which have pacts with Airtel to provide intra-circle roaming services, to be made parties in the case. BSNL was also allowed to implead itself in the matter and the bench gave it permission to file its application.

Reliance Communication Ltd and DoT have accused Airtel of providing 3G services to customers in circles where it did not have licence through ‘illegal subletting’ of spectrum to 2G service licence holders. DoT had on 15 March issued a notification restraining Airtel from providing 3G intra-circle roaming facilities in seven circles where it did not have the spectrum and also levied penalty of Rs 350 crore (Rs 50 crore per circle) for allegedly violating the licence terms and conditions.

On 18 March, a single-judge bench of the Delhi HC had stayed the operation of the notification. However, on a plea filed by Reliance, a division bench of the high court on 4 April had set aside the single judge’s order. Airtel then moved the apex court.

Reliance in its plea said: ‘It (Reliance) has paid thousands of crores for the 3G spectrum and Bharti is using it for free in as many as seven circles, therefore, disrupting the level-playing field. If this is allowed, then there is no requirement for any licensee to participate and purchase 3G spectrum in auction. This defeats the purpose of auction.’
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