Thursday, April 11, 2013

SC orders Airtel not to enrol new 3G subscribers in 7 zone

The Supreme Court has ordered Bharti Airtel not to enrol new subscribers in seven circles where it had no licence to offer 3G spectrum services.

Reliance and the department of telecommunications had alleged that Airtel was providing 3G services to customers in circles where it did not have licence through illegal subletting of spectrum to 2G service licence holders.

However, the SC stayed the DoT order asking Airtel to immediately stop 3G services in circles where it did not have licence but continued taking subscribers through alleged subletting.

The SC also asked DoT not to use coercive methods to force Airtel to pay the fine amount of Rs 350 crore imposed on it for providing 3G services in circles without licence.

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

A bench comprising chief justice Altamas Kabir and Justice Vikramajit Sen issued notices to the Centre and Reliance Communications Ltd and sought their response within two weeks on the petition filed by Bharti Airtel challenging a Delhi high court order giving its nod to DoT's decision to hold the 3G roaming pact of the telecom major as illegal.

The apex court said thereafter the respondents will file rejoinder within two weeks and posted the matter for hearing on May 9.

The department of telecommunications (DoT) had on March 15 issued a notification restraining Bharti 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 March 18, a single-judge bench of the high court had stayed the operation of the notification.

However, on a plea filed by Reliance, a division bench of the high court on April 4 had set aside the single judge's order.

The telecom major has challenged the decision of the division bench of the high court.

On April 8, the apex court had asked the government to refrain from taking any "coercive steps" against Bharti Airtel and asked the parties to maintain status quo on the issue till the matter is heard on April 11.

Airtel in its plea had contended that the division bench of the high court was wrong in entertaining the plea of Reliance as it was not a party before the single judge.

However, counsel appearing for Reliance, had submitted before the apex court that what Airtel has been doing for two years was completely illegal as it did not have licence for 3G in seven circles, including Kolkata where it was selling the 'SIM' cards for 3G mobile connections.

Reliance in its plea before the high court had sought directions to "declare and hold 3G intra-circle roaming agreements entered into between Bharti and other service providers as illegal and in violation of Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution."

"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," the plea also said.

Reliance said it was not made a party by Bharti in its plea before the single judge despite the fact that Reliance is directly affected by the relief sought by it.

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