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Telecom peace talks heading for collapse

By Surajeet Das Gupta & Thomas K Thomas in New Delhi
February 19, 2003 11:55 IST

The telecom industry's peace talks are heading for a collapse, with the major cellular companies almost ruling out any compromise with WLL players on allowing licences to basic service operators to offer full mobile services on payment of an entry fee.

Sources in the cellular industry said they would prefer that the issue of WLL limited mobility be resolved by the Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal.

The proposal was first mooted by Pramod Mahajan, former minister for communication. It was backed by several cellular and basic operators.

A majority of the cell firms are, however, against allowing unlimited competition in the cellular sector on grounds that the basic operators are unwilling to compromise on issues like V5.2, roaming and short messaging services.

After the very first meeting of the Vinod Vaish committee on telecom yesterday, key cellular firms have taken the hardline that the talks are heading nowhere and the issue of WLL limited mobility will have to be settled in court.

They also rejected a proposal to withdraw all cases pending with the tribunal in return for some compromise by basic operators.

Industry sources said at least one large mobile operator was believed to be pushing for a softer line on the issue and had suggested falling in line with Mahajan's proposal.

However, the particular company may not go against the majority because it is tied down by the fact that its long-distance business is dependent on other cellular operators, the only customers it has.

On the other hand, the company does not want to be seen opposing the government because it has interests in areas other than the cellular sector.

Some of the cellular operators are now hoping that the talks collapse, resulting in no change in the basic operators' licence conditions.

Industry analysts point out the lack of seriousness, with the absence of Sunil Mittal, chairman of the Bharti group, and Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, from the meeting on Tuesday.

So while Asim Ghosh, managing director of Hutchison, and Rajeev Chandrashekhar, chairman of BPL, came from Mumbai to attend the committee meeting, Mittal went on a business trip to the Nokia headquarters.

Bharti officials, however, said Mittal's engagement was known to all concerned last week itself. Some of the cellular operators are also peeved with Ambani's absence, despite prior intimation.

The cell firms might also be upset with senior officials in the department of telecom backing the government's policy on WLL services at Tuesday's meeting.

The officials had asked the cell firms to defend their claims that services like SMS and call forwarding were illegal for WLL operators.

While it will be interesting to see the development on Friday, when the committee meets again, most operators have set their eyes on February 24, when the tribunal takes up the WLL case.

Surajeet Das Gupta & Thomas K Thomas in New Delhi