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BW Businessworld

Spectrum Conundrum

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Radio spectrum used by mobile operators has all along been a contentious issue in India. Most people accept mobile call drops as common, nowadays. But come December, for nearly 100 million mobile subscribers in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, a more serious problem awaits them. Mobile operators won’t be at fault; rather the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and its wireless planning and coordination wing should take the blame for this event. 
 
The incumbents — Vodafone (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata), Bharti Airtel (Delhi, Kolkata) and Loop Telecom (Mumbai) — will complete their 20-year licence terms on 29 and 30 November. Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular already won spectrum in the 900 MHz band at the February 2014 auctions (Loop did not participate). Since then, frequencies have changed, but DoT has not yet allocated the new spectrum to them. It takes almost six months to tune a network to the new frequencies. Moreover, the quantum of spectrum has changed.
 
Earlier, Airtel and Vodafone each had 8 MHz of spectrum in Delhi. Following the auction, Airtel got 6 MHz, and Vodafone and Idea 5 MHz each. Earlier, Vodafone and Loop had 8 MHz each in Mumbai; now Vodafone has 11 MHz and Bharti 5 MHz.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a flurry of letters from operators to DoT. Finally, on 17 October, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) chairman Rahul Khullar wrote a two-page letter to DoT secretary Rakesh Garg saying, “It is apprehended that in December 2014, there will be a serious deterioration in the quality of service to subscribers because of call drops, network congestion, etc.”
 
DoT has not responded so far. Airtel and Vodafone have sought an extension of their licence till the spectrum is allocated to them. But this may pose problems for Idea, which for the first time acquired 900 MHz band spectrum in Delhi during the February auctions. 
 
Furthermore, DoT is yet to fix the amount of spectrum to be auctioned in early 2015. The GSM association wants the government to auction all spectrums in the 900/1,800 MHz and the 2,100 MHz band too. This is expected to ease the situation for operators, who may otherwise lose out if they do not manage to win spectrum in the 900 MHz band where they already have spectrum.
 
It is time for DoT to rise to the occasion and ensure that the sector, which has changed the lives of people, does not disappoint in future. This is the mandate before DoT. 
 
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 01-12-2014)