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Scrap the Trai/TDSAT

Sunil Jain | August 25, 2003

The Department of Telecom's latest stance in the ongoing V5.2-versus-MSC case at the Telecom Disputes Settlement Tribunal, the TDSAT, makes it amply clear that the government always planned to allow firms like Reliance Infocomm and Tata Teleservices a backdoor entry into the mobile telephony market.

Not just this, the government deliberately kept its intentions a secret for over 30 months, and in the event, misled not just the Trai and the TDSAT, but even the cellular operators -- it's refusal to issue vital clarifications allowed firms like Reliance to collect over 3 million subscribers who believed the fully-mobile service was legit, and this vast body of users is now being cited as the pretext to legalise the service, if need be through a new unified licence.

If these 3 million customers were not there, it is very clear, it would be impossible for the government to even think of not implementing the TDSAT judgement which says all-India roaming WiLL services have to be stopped.

For those who've come in late, it would be useful to go over some of the building blocks of this controversy once again. On January 8, 2001, the telecom regulator, the Trai, allowed fixed-line telephone firms to provide what were called WiLL-mobile services provided they were very 'limited' in nature, and it even prescribed how this was to be achieved.

Before we go on, it's also useful to keep in mind the difference in the manner in which a WiLL-mobile and a GSM-mobile work. Your WiLL handset's signals are captured by a base transmitting station, the signals of several of these BTS's (in different colonies of a city, for instance) are then captured by a base station controller, and the BSC in turn routes these signals to a local exchange switch through what's called a V5.2 signalling protocol -- it is the local exchange's switch which actually allows a call to be made, the BTS's and the BSC's are just a wireless means to take the signals to the switch.

Now let's look at the GSM-mobile network. It's exactly the same till the level of the BSC, except that instead of having a local exchange, it has a mobile switching center instead, and it is this MSC that allows users to use their handsets in any part of the country/world.

Substitute the local exchange of the WiLL-mobile network with a MSC, and WiLL-mobiles become exactly the same as cellular ones.

Given this vital difference (and this is the only difference, contrary to what the telecom ministry is now trying to tell people), the Trai said MSCs were not permitted in the WiLL system, and that is why only limited mobility within the local area is to be permitted.

On January 25, 2001, the DoT's guidelines reiterated this; on March 20, Trai chief M S Verma wrote to telecom secretary Shyamal Ghosh, telling him to specifically mention that WiLL-mobile networks will not be allowed to have MSCs.

And on May 24, the Trai's tariff order reiterated that WiLL networks were not to have MSCs.

Since the DoT never challenged this tariff order, or said that MSCs could be allowed in WiLL networks (around ten letters of the cellular operators asking for a clarification on the matter go unanswered during this period), when bidding began for the fourth cellular licence in mid-July, the cellular firms bid Rs 1,633 crore (Rs 16.33 billion) for an all-India licence even though an all-India WiLL licence was available for a much lower Rs 495 crore (Rs 4.95 billion). (Interestingly, a year later, in April 2002, the Trai's affidavit to the TDSAT still maintained that MSCs were not allowed in WiLL networks.)

The issue of the government's silence gets even more sinister. In mid-August, as soon as the fourth-round bidding for cellular got over, the DoT issued WiLL-licences that still left the issue of MSCs open -- interestingly, none of the government companies, BSNL or MTNL, used MSCs for providing WiLL-mobiles despite this.

Another nine or ten letters are shot off by the cellular operators saying some WiLL firms are using MSCs and that this is violating the Trai guidelines -- since each is once again met with complete silence, the cellular operators can't even take the government to court.

One of the last ones, to telecom secretary Vinod Vaish, written on February 25, 2003, asks him at least to enforce the limited mobility clause till the TDSAT decides on the legality of WiLL services. Vaish, not surprisingly, doesn't respond.

Till now, it is important to keep in mind, none of the private sector WiLL-mobile providers have really made any aggressive bid to woo customers -- Reliance's Monsoon Hungama that netted it 3 million customers, began only in May.

It is difficult to dismiss the government's refusal to comment on whether MSCs are to be allowed or not, as just normal bureaucratic lethargy.

Especially since this strategic silence helped build up a huge customer base for the WiLL companies.

What's equally clear from the DoT's statement to the TDSAT a few days ago -- that it had deliberately kept the issue of MSCs open -- is that the government isn't too bothered about the recommendations of the Trai.

When it suited the DoT, it justified its decision to allow WiLL-mobile services by saying it was based on a Trai recommendation; but when the Trai's rulings in 2001, on not allowing MSCs, didn't suit it, the DoT simply ignored the Trai's ruling, even distorted it.

And now, based on the TDSAT judgement, when the Trai has asked the DoT to restrict WiLL operators from offering roaming facilities like call-forward and multiple registration (Reliance Infocomm is offering this), the DoT has done precious little to implement it.

Since the regulators aren't being taken seriously, why even bother to have them?

Postscript: It's probably embarrassing to remind the government of this, but in January 2001, when the cellular operators protested against the allowing of WiLL-mobile services, the then Solicitor General of India, Harish Salve who appeared on behalf of the Union of India, suggested a clause be put in the WiLL-licences, saying they would be revoked in case the TDSAT ruled against them. Well, the TDSAT has ruled against all-India roaming WiLL licences.

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