The country’s top three operators by revenue, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular, continue to offer 3G services on a pan-India basis as the dispute over 3G roaming pacts now goes to the Supreme Court. The telcos continue to do so as the telecoms tribunal on Tuesday gave a split verdict petition challenging the government's order banning 3G roaming pacts. The tribunal asked the operators to appeal at a higher court, one lawyer on the case said, after the tribunal split its vote with one in favour of the government and the other in favour of the carriers.

Consumers may have to bear the brunt

Telcos continue pan-India 3G roaming as split in verdict…

The report says that telcos have interpreted the ruling to mean that the earlier order of the tribunal that temporarily restrained the government from banning 3G roaming would remain in force. On the other hand, this was disputed by a senior telecoms department (DoT) official who said the verdict cannot be interpreted as a 'continuation of status quo'. The official further said that the verdict paved the way for DoT to initiate fresh action against mobile phone companies for violating licence conditions and also for signing agreements in regions where they don’t have 3G permits.

Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) chairman Justice SB Sinha ruled in favour of operators while tribunal member PK Rastogi said that telcos cannot be allowed to offer high-end data services in regions they don’t have permits for 3G airwaves. According to the Trai Act, Supreme Court must issue the final order if the tribunal delivers a split verdict, said Senior advocate Gopal Jain. “Today's ruling is not an enforceable order as neither side has lost the case. So, the status quo continues till the SC issues final and enforceable order,” he said.

The report also says that this situation could have been avoided if the government had appointed a third member to the tribunal as the TDSAT has a three-member bench but the government has not replaced one of its technical members who retired last year.

In a 2010 government auction, Bharti won 3G bandwidth in 13 of the country's 22 service areas, while Idea gained access to 11 and Vodafone nine. The telecoms ministry told carriers last December that it was illegal to offer 3G services beyond their allotted zones by mutually agreeing to share their airwaves. In the same month, the three operators and smaller rivals Tata Teleservices TATASL.UL and Aircel challenged the government order before the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT). DoT had not only filed an affidavit in this respect, but had also asked TDSAT to reject the petition by the wireless operators in the country, which will mean that operators will lose their Intra-circle 3G roaming agreements. Telcos even went on to seek PM’s intervention over TRAI's 3G roaming termination plans. In a joint letter by Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel, Kumar Mangalam Birla of Idea Cellular and Vodafone Group CEO, Vittorio Colao, said, “…in the event that 3G Intra-Circle Roaming (ICR) is now deemed impermissible, then, it would be a clear breach of our contract and the pre-auction confirmation given by the government.”

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