Bharti Airtel, the country's largest telecom operator, has moved the high court, challenging a show-cause notice by the department of telecommunications and an advisory from it that asked the company to stop third-generation roaming services with immediate effect.
Airtel is currently offering 3G services outside its licensed zones through intra-circle roaming pacts with Vodafone and Idea Cellular. DoT issued the notice to Airtel on Friday and said other 3G operators involved in roaming agreements would also be served notices.
In its plea, Bharti Airtel has sought quashing of the government's September 28 decision directing the service providers to stop providing intra-circle roaming services.
It alleged the decision was contrary to the interim orders passed by the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal.
When contacted, an Airtel spokesperson, in an e-mail statement, said: "Bharti Airtel is in receipt of a show-cause notice received from DoT on 3G ICR, and is seeking appropriate legal remedy. Airtel confirms the 3G ICR arrangements are in compliance with the clarifications of the DoT at the time of the auction of the 3G spectrum, all applicable laws and licensing conditions and are hugely beneficial to customers.
"Grave inconvenience will be caused to customers if it is disallowed."
Till further communication from the court, the company will not stop intra-circle 3G roaming services, a company official confirmed. Airtel has 60 days to respond to the DoT notice, which asks why action should not be taken against the company for violating rules. Airtel was supposed to stop services within three days of the notice issuance.
In the auction of 3G airwaves in 2010, no single company had managed to get spectrum in all of the country's 22 zones.
Airtel, Vodafone and Idea had entered into mutual agreements to offer 3G services in circles where they could not win spectrum.
Airtel has 3G spectrum in 13 circles, but offers services in 20. Idea has spectrum in 11 circles, but offers services in 19, while Vodafone, with spectrum in nine, has rolled out services in 20 zones.
The number of circles where 3G spectrum was auctioned is twenty two. On Friday, the notice was issued only to Airtel. Telecom Secretary R Chandrasekhar said the department will soon issue show-cause notices to the other telecom operators engaged in 3G roaming pacts.
Over a fifth of the 30 million 3G customers across the country would be affected if the three operators suspend the intra-circle roaming pacts.
DoT had ruled such pacts illegal in December 2011, and asked the operators to stop offering 3G services beyond their licensed circles.
The operators had filed a petition challenging the DoT verdict in the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal. Tata Teleservices and Aircel were also party to the petition. A two-member bench of TDSAT in July gave a spilt verdict.
While member P K Rastogi said the operators could not give roaming services, as they were not allowed to provide 3G services with 2G licences, Chairman Justice S B Sinha ordered DoT to start the procedure afresh, as the department had not followed proper procedure and the operators were not given enough time to present their views.
Following the spilt verdict, operators were maintaining 'status quo'. Though they paid higher prices for 3G airwaves, the uptake of the service remained slow, partly due to the high cost of such services.