Standing first in the queue may qualify the telecom licence applicants to get a licence but not necessarily qualify them to get spectrum to run wireless phone services. This became clear on Tuesday with the industry regulator clarifying on the position, while the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) indicated that it was open to changes in its policy regime to deal with a surfeit of aspirants for telecom licences.
“First-come-first-served applies for allocation of licence. It does not apply to spectrum. It (policy) clearly says that spectrum will be subject to availability,” Nripendra Misra, chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) told Hindustan Times.
Spectrum had come automatically with telecom licences for all the operators who started early, but things have changed after more than 500 applicants joined the fray following the TRAI’s recommendation in August to allow an unlimited number of players in each circle. That raised big questions on scarce wireless spectrum which is in short supply. The message now is that the old rules may not apply to the new aspirants.
A senior DoT official speaking to Hindustan Times last week had said that it was a false notion that spectrum came with licence. The TRAI has now made it clear its recommendations say pretty much the same thing.
Now, the crucial question remains on how 576 applicants will be screened. “Existing criteria in the background of TRAI guidelines will apply” Communications Minister A. Raja said at an event jointly organized by the Ministry of Communications and FICCI. DoT secretary D.S. Mathur, however, indicated that there was room for changes.
There are questions hanging on how applicants will be judged for priority if the “first-come-first-served” rule is applied. DoT had long back removed the criterion of previous experience in telecoms from the eligibility criteria as mentioned in the Unified Access Service Licence guidelines.
However, that still does not address the spectrum issue in which some applicants favour an auction, while talk has also veered around some technical criteria.
If the DoT seeks changes in TRAI’s recommendations, the matter has to go back to the regulator, under the TRAI Act that governs its resonsibilities and powers. Depending on the initial 2G spectrum released by Defence authorities in the 1800 MHz band, only 3 to 4 players will be able to start operations. Before receiving such large number of applications, DoT’s estimated the spectrum requirement in metros and major cities is anywhere between 35 to 45 MHz until the end of 2012.
Incumbent 2G players have also been lobbying to get more spectrum, trying to push the envelope on the current rules that allow new spectrum on the basis of actual expansion on the ground.
Meanwhile, unlike 2G licences, 3G licences to enable advanced services may not put DoT in a quandary. DoT secretary Mathur said they have an option to auction or allot the licences, and the department expects three to four active players to start with. Not just Indian, even foreign players will be allowed to participate in the bid, he said.