In what could jeopardise the pan-India services offered by private telecom operators Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Essar and Idea Cellular, the department of telecommunications has clarified that a unified access service licence licensee cannot offer 3G services and declare a tariff plan or acquire customers in a circle it hasn't been allocated 3G spectrum for.
DoT has stated in an internal note that the 3G roaming agreements between these three companies are tantamount to their becoming mobile virtual network operators, something not allowed under the current policy.
An MVNO offers mobile services on other operators' network and does not have its own licensed spectrum and infrastructure.
An MVNO policy is currently under the DoT's consideration.
The country has 10-15 million 3G customers. Private players had launched 3G services late last year.
Reliance Communications and Tata Teleservices also provide 3G mobile services in selected circles but have not entered into such roaming deals.
"The roaming arrangements in the 3G networks carried out by the licensees are more in the nature of MVNOs than roaming. Under the licence conditions, a licensee providing services has to have its own network.
At present, mandatory roaming or MVNOs are not part of the government's telecom policy," DoT said in the note.
DoT's stand comes just a few days after telecom regulator Trai stated that after studying the issue on legal, economic and technical grounds, it had prima facie come to the conclusion such arrangements were a "violation of the terms and conditions of the licence".
Trai said the operators' action could have serious financial implications for the government. While Vodafone has 3G spectrum in nine circles, it offers 3G services in 20.
Bharti Airtel has 3G spectrum in 13 circles but offers 3G services in 20.
Idea Cellular has 3G spectrum in 11 circles but offers 3G services in 19. 3G spectrum was auctioned last year for 22 circles.
The operators claim such a provision is allowed under the licence conditions and was written specifically in the notice inviting applications for the 3G auction.
DoT has clarified: "The licence conditions and clarifications issued during the 3G spectrum auction have to be read in totality and not in isolation."
"The interpretation of selected licence conditions and responses to queries issued during the auction of 3G spectrum by entering into roaming arrangements for offering 3G services, without having 3G spectrum in the home network, is not plausible," the DoT note said.
State-run telecom firm BSNL has also objected to the 3G roaming agreements between the three private operators and said that would make its own 3G case unviable.
The TERM cell, a division of DoT, had earlier restrained the three private operators from offering services by way of roaming pacts.
A public interest litigation was filed in the Delhi high court in September, saying the 3G roaming agreements were illegal and against the license norms.
The court asked additional solicitor general A S Chandioke to present the government's stand on the agreements.
The next hearing is scheduled for early next month.