In a major setback to major telecom operators Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Loop, the Supreme Court on Sunday refused to stay the spectrum auction scheduled to be held on Monday.
The refusal to stay the auction comes as a blow to the especially to India's top two operators Bharti Airtel and Vodafone India that hold substantial quantum of airwaves in the efficient 900 Mhz bands in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata that are set to expire in November this year. The operators will now have to bid aggressively in the auctions beginning Monday to win back their bandwidth holdings.
A bench comprising AR Dave and SA Bobde in a special hearing refused to grant any interim relief saying they don't have a monopoly of unlimited license holding. It observed that the telecos have a wrong notion that spectrum belongs to them while spectrum given to them is only for a specific period of 20 years.
However, it admitted their appeals challenging the TDSAT order that dismissed the petitions of Vodafone India, Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular seeking extensions of their licences in the 900 Mhz band in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata circles.
Senior counsel AM Singhvi and Mukul Rohtagi, appearing for Vodafone and Bharti, respectively, argued that the companies have a legal, contractual and vested right to extension of its licenses along with the spectrum already allocated. Upon extension of licenses, they are willing to pay a fair market determined price for the spectrum already allocated to them.
Additional Solictor general KV Vishwanathan opposed their pleas saying that the government cannot "hold mock" auctions if these companies were allowed to keep the spectrum with them as it would scare away petential bidders.
Bharti said that "by way of the Notice Inviting Application () dated 12.12.2013, the respondent (DoT) included spectrum in the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz spectrum bands belonging to the Appellant (Bharti) for the upcoming auctions commencing on 23.01.2014 (later postponed to 03.02.2014) in respect of the Delhi Circle. Likewise, for the Kolkata Circle, the Respondent has included spectrum in the 900 MHz spectrum band belonging to the Petitioner."
The companies also requested the court to allow them to keep 900 MHz spectrum and once the government discovered the price through auction they would be ready to pay that price.
However, Idea Cellular's case was not before the apex court on Sunday.