Unfair to call Trai biased for simply floating consultation paper: Manoj Sinha
Sinha clarified that the Department of Telecommunications hadn’t washed its hands off the dispute over interconnect points by directing the telcos to approach the regulator.
“It is an open market. The government will welcome any move which benefits the consumer,” Sinha said. “As a minister, I am not worried. Let me tell you that in the last 15 years, whenever the tariffs have gone down, the department has earned even more revenue…I can say that the customer is king.”
Sinha clarified that the Department of Telecommunications hadn’t washed its hands off the dispute over interconnect points by directing the telcos to approach the regulator. The contentious issue of PoI has pitted India’s largest carriers Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular against Mukesh Ambani-controlled Reliance Jio.
“We haven’t refused the telecom operators. We have simply told them to go to the regulator with their problems on interconnect as this is the domain of the regulator,” Sinha told ET when asked if DoT would intervene if the regulator was unable to resolve the matter.
“We, on our part, can comment on this only after tomorrow’s (Friday’s) meeting between the regulator and the telcos.”
ROW OVER POI
The Cellular Operators Association of India, representing Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular, has been sparring with Reliance Jio over the number of PoIs that need to be provided to enable calls from the new entrant’s network to go through to their networks.
Jio has said that most calls made from its network to other networks are dropping as the incumbent operators have refused to provide it sufficient interconnect points. The incumbent operators have refused to give extra PoIs to Jio, claiming that traffic from the new company due to its free voice and data offer was choking their networks.
Jio launched services on September 5 and is offering free calls and data services to subscribers until the year-end. In the New Year, while calls will remain free, data will be charged at one-fifth of the current market rates. Incumbent telcos are widely expected to reduce rates to retain subscribers, especially mid- to high-revenue paying customers.
Sinha, 57, who took over as telecom minister on July 5, has found himself in the hot seat as the sector sees one of the ugliest corporate wars in a decade, triggered by the launch of services by Reliance Jio. The incumbents and Jio have sparred on issues including PoIs and inter-connect user charges (IUC). COAI has even accused the telecom regulator of bias against incumbent operators in its consultation paper on reviewing IUC.
Sinha pulled up COAI, saying accusations of bias against the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in favour of a “new entrant” were premature.
“If a decision has been taken, then you can give an opinion over whether it is biased or not. It is not appropriate for anyone to give an opinion about a decision which is yet to be made,” he remarked.
MORE POWERS FOR TRAI
On the issue of whether the department will agree with the regulator’s proposal to give it more powers, Sinha said the matter was under consideration and a decision would be taken soon. After the Supreme Court struck down Trai’s order to telcos to compensate users for call drops, the regulator had written to the department seeking more teeth to regulate operators.
Sinha said call drops had eased in the country and the situation would continue to improve. The minister said over the past two years, the department had been able to win back the trust of both domestic and international investors, which had been long lost in the sector.
Sinha said the upcoming spectrum auctions would be conducted in the most transparent manner, although he refused to provide any estimate of proceeds from the sale. “How can I make any expectations of how much the government expects? The auctions are beginning October 1. It will not be appropriate for me to speak,” he said.
The government is offering the largest ever quantum of airwaves, which is worth over Rs 5.6 lakh crore at the reserve price. The spectrum on offer includes airwaves in the 700 MHz band, which is considered most efficient for 4G and is the most expensive.
Sinha said the department’s recent initiative on the right-of-way policy would help private operators set up more cell sites, which will help reduce call drops, and lay optic fibre.
BHARATNET TOP PRIORITY
He said among his top priorities was the timely completion of the BharatNet project, which envisages digitally connecting 250,000 gram panchayats through an optic fibre network.
“We are trying to complete the BharatNet project before time — that is a priority for us,” he said. The project has been marred by delays, but has now picked up and the department is confident of completing laying of the optical fibre network by 2018.
On state-run telcos, the minister said Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd had undergone many ups and downs and was still able to register an operating profit.
“We are hopeful that BSNL will continue to improve its performance,” Sinha said. On Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd, he said the company was trying to expand its capacity and had placed some additional orders. “We are trying our best to revive it.”