The ongoing dispute between Reliance Jio Infocomm and incumbent operators Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular has now landed before the Competition Commission of India (CCI). Sources in the regulatory body told FE that Jio has filed a complaint against the three incumbent operators alleging that they are abusing their dominant market power and formed a cartel of sorts, denying it the requisite number of points of interconnect (PoIs), leading to a high number of call failures that is inconveniencing its customers.
A CCI official said it would ask its director general (investigation) to probe the matter. “If the DG investigation submits a report that prima facie there’s merit in the complaint, the matter would be probed further and CCI will be give its ruling,” the official said.
Though Jio did not comment on the matter and incumbent operators said they are unaware of any such development as so far they have not received any notice from the CCI, it is for the first time that any telecom operator has moved the anti-monopoly body.
Normally matters concerning telecom disputes between licensor and licensee and between licensees are arbitrated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and subsequently by the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal. The Trai Act provides that these bodies can arbitrate on such disputes. However, since CCI looks into complaints related to abuse of dominant market power, the matter can be looked into by it also but there’s no precedent so far.
Jio and the three incumbent operators have been locked in a tiff even before the former’s commercial launch on September 5. The allegations levelled by Jio is that the incumbents are not providing it with enough PoIs that are required to connect calls between different networks, which is leading to the majority of its calls failing. In fact, during the Reliance Industries annual general meeting on September 1, chairman and managing director Mukesh Ambani had urged the incumbent operators not to use their market power to block competition from the new entrant.
The matter has been arbitrated by Trai in the past, after which incumbent operators have more than doubled the number of PoIs, but the matter was not fully settled with both sides indulging in allegations and counter-allegations.
In fact, on October 21 Trai recommended a fine of R50 crore per circle against the three incumbent operators for denying sufficient PoIs to Jio, which was resulting in inconvenience to the latter’s consumers as a large number of call attempts resulted in failure. While a fine of R50 crore each for 21 circles was recommended for Bharti and Vodafone, for Idea the same was for 19 circles.
The recommendation to levy fines came after Trai had issued notices to the three operators towards end-September after finding a high level of congestion in their networks, leading to call failures made to and from the Jio network beyond permissible limits. Since September 30, Trai has been monitoring congestion levels on a daily basis and found that the situation had not improved.
The basic defence of the three companies was that there’s a 90-day period since the commercial launch of services for providing the demanded PoIs and that it was not fair for Trai to monitor the congestion level on a daily basis as it should be seen on a monthly basis.
Trai chairman RS Sharma had earlier told FE that based on the data that the regulator had asked from all the operators between September 15 and 19, it found that the congestion level was as high as 96% in some of the circles against the permissible limit of 0.5%.
The Quality of Service norms prescribe that congestion level should not exceed 0.5%, which means that out of 1,000 calls not more than 5 should fail. However, in the present case almost 960 calls were failing, he had said.
Congestion level is different from call drop. In the former, a call does not get connected whereas in the latter a call drops after it is connected. For call drop, the failure should not be more than 2%.