WLL: Who Done It?

The prime minister is adamant. The telecom minister has dug his heels in. The
cellular industry is cheering, but basic operators with WLL dreams feel it’s a
big blow for them.

The bone of contention

While the government had already announced guidelines for basic telephone
licenses on January 25, Paswan endorsed the decision in the first week of April.
According to the government plan, basic service providers were to be given 2.5
MHz frequency pair on a first come first serve basis. The spectrum was to be
provided in the frequency band of 824-844 MHz, paired with 869-889 MHz. What
this meant in simple language was that the fixed service providers (FSPs) were
being allowed to provide limited mobility within short distance charging areas (SDCA).

Meanwhile, the cellular cartel, fearing stiff competition from basic
operators decided to attack the government on the issue and even questioned the
DoT’s decision to give free spectrum to basic operators. However, the real
twist in the drama came in with a sudden volte-face by the prime minister. On
April 7, AB Vajpayee handed over the issue of limited mobility for fixed line
phones to the high powered group on telecom and information technology (GoT-IT)
headed by finance minister Yashwant Sinha. This, despite the fact that the GoT-IT
is expected to submit its recommendations by April 30, is believed to be an
attempt to put WLL in the back burner.

The political twist

There is a political twist also, with the Congress leader and party’s chief
whip Priya Ranjan Das Munshi levying serious charges on the government.
According to Munshi, fraudulent interpretation of the NTP 1999 has led to a huge
loss to the exchequer with the government giving away Rs 13,000 crore worth
spectrum free to the FSPs intending to implement limited mobility through WLL.
That Munshi has managed to garner enough support is also because three of the
major FSPs are Tatas, HFCL and the Reliance group.

Is it masses vs classes?

TRAI, in its recommendations, has favored the service in favor of the masses.
According to the TRAI panel, mobility through WLL should be permitted as it
would help increase telecom penetration in the country. "Permitting WLL
with limited mobility within local area…will be in the best interest of the
consumer and the telecom services in the country," TRAI said. The panel
felt that such a service would help cover more areas–including rural–provide
more services and different costs as per the affordability of various classes in
society.

How They Fare

 

CDMA

GSM

WINNER

Handset
cost
11,000 5,000 GSM
Outgoing
airtime charges
1.20/minute 2.50/minute CDMA
Incoming
airtime charges
Nil 1.50/minute CDMA
Monthly
rental
400-600 475 CDMA
Figures
in Rs; Source: V&D

While the Association of Basic Telecom Operators (ABTO) has welcomed TRAI’s
recommendations, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), has however,
made it clear it was very unhappy. It has accused the regulator of
"approaching the issue with a pre-determined mind".

Where W(i)LL it go?

According to DoT sources, the government’s decision to review the decision
will have no bearing on the companies that have already introduced their
services.

The National Telcom Policy ‘99, in a way makes for limited mobility,
through its targets of tele-density as well as rural and remote area telephony
at cheaper and affordable rates. The basic operators are also somewhat confident
that the decision will ultimately be in their favor. However, some industry
experts also feel that rather than taking a serious and firm stand on the issue,
referring the matter to GoT-IT would unnecessarily delay things. Till there is a
definite and clear stand, the poor man’s mobile dreams will remain under
confusion. WiLL it, won’t it…

SHUBHENDU PARTH and SHWETA
VERMA
in New Delhi

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