Following a petition alleging that Bharti Airtel and Vodafone were charging 10p/SMS termination fee in a “cartelised manner”, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has directed the former to file replies “on maintainability of a petition”. According to latest reports, the petition was filed by an NGO Telecom Watchdog. Both operators, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone, have now been directed by a single-member TDSAT bench of PK Rastogi to reply to the petition. The NGO alleged that the service providers were indulging in this “illegal activity in a cartelised manner”.  

Incidentally, during the course of the proceedings, Vodafone raised questions on the maintainability of the NGO’s petition that was filed by its counsel Prashant Bhushan. TDSAT has now directed both Airtel and Vodafone to file their reply in three weeks and the matter has been now listed for hearing on January 11, 2013. TDSAT, incidentally, omitted TRAI from the issue after it noted that the petitioner claimed no relief from the regulator. 

No bulk SMSes, MMSes for the next 15 days (Image credit: Getty Images)

Airtel, Vodafone directed to file replies (Image credit: Getty Images)

Reports quote the petitioner as stating that it was “aggrieved by the inaction of the Respondent No 1 (Trai) against the arbitrary decisions of the operators, who are all out to fix termination charges at 10 paisa per SMS by way of bilateral agreements with different operators that is detrimental to the interest of the consumers.”

The petitioner went on to add that, “They are doing this illegal activity in a cartelised manner and are jointly exploiting Trai's regulations that had put the IUC for SMS under 'forbearance'. The operators are converting 'forbearance' into a 'mandatory' provision under which all the operators henceforth must pay termination charges of 10 paisa per SMS in a 'non-transparent' manner.”

Further, as per the NGO’s petition, TDSAT had been approached by some operators, challeging the termination charges. However, the issue was not looked into, since it suited “their common objective of hiking the tariffs to the consumers in a uniform/cartelised manner.”

The NGO has now requested TDSAT to “strike down any arrangement insisted upon by Respondents No 2 and 3 (Airtel and Vodafone) with any other UAS licensee in so far as it relates to the Termination Charges for SMS.” It has further requested that both, Airtel and Vodafone  be issued directions to stay with the bill-and-keep arrangement, till TRAI arrives upon a “reasonable cost based tariff for termination charge on SMS.” 

Interestingly, the NGO’s petition had initially been against TRAI, and now it is after amendment that the names of the two service providers have been included. 

Recently, TDSAT also directed Aircel to pay Vodafone an SMS termination fee of five paisa per SMS till the TDSAT gives its final word on the matter. Vodafone had earlier sought a termination fee of 10 paisa per SMS from Aircel. In the meanwhile, Vodafone has been told to restore the interconnection of SMSes generated on Aircel's network. Noting that in the event the SMS services between the two operators are disconnected, consumers would suffer, a single member-bench of PK Rastogi arrived at the interim order. A final hearing is awaited for January 10. 

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