Trai(ng) Times

Updated: Jan 23 2003, 05:30am hrs
The stalemate in the telecom sector may seem to have ended after Union telecommunications minister Pramod Mahajan intervened and gave an assurance to the cellular industry that: I have promised to look into their issues for a level playing field on an urgent basis. I am going to request Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) to come up with regulations for a just and fair interconnect regime.

Can the minister, who is a functionary of the government, make such a statement in light of the provisions under the Trai Act It appears not.

The Act, under the Sections where the government can give directions to Trai, specifies that it can do so in the case of security of the State, the sovereignty and integrity of India, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality. Additionally, the Authority is bound by such directions on questions of policy as the central government may give in writing to it from time to time (provided that the Authority shall, as far as practicable, be given an opportunity to express its views before any direction is given); and when it comes to whether its a policy decision or not, the governments decision is final.

Are interconnect charges (the root problem of the face-off) a question of policy or are they relevant to national security Or is the minister referring to the entire issue of interconnect There are two words in Mr Mahajans statement that need a bit of understanding: Request and Just and Fair. When he says request, under what provisions of the Act can he request As the overall master of MTNL/BSNL, or as a telecom minister It would be rather strange for a minister to ask for a level playing field for MTNL/BSNL on the interconnect regime, but as a telecom minister he may well do so as a policy issue. But then, does he need to request Now if the request is for a just and fair regime, is the minister indicating that the current regime is not fair (which is what the cellular industry wants) In any case, for whom should the interconnect regime be just and fair For the operators or for the consumers and operators together

In either case, interconnect is a problem child which needs some out-of-the-box thinking. For starters, why not convert the common infrastructure (the network) into a natural monopoly reducing MTNL/BSNL to being service providers and a uniform charge be levied on all service providers for use of the network This can take care of the current operations and future expansion. Telecoms is a volumes business and competition is one way of ensuring prices are kept in check. But competition is a double-edged sword: what may be good for consumers at this stage, may wipe out the service provider in the future. This is where plainspeak will help, Mr Minister.