Terms it ‘arbitrary, unreasonable and non-transparent’
In a major jolt for the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down its October 2015 regulation that made it mandatory for mobile operators to monetarily compensate their subscribers for call drops — Re 1 for every dropped call, with a maximum for three dropped calls in a day.
“We have held the impugned regulation to be ultra vires, arbitrary, unreasonable and non-transparent,” a bench comprising justices Kurian Joseph and RF Nariman said in their 97-page order.
The SC said that the basis for striking down the regulation was that while it was meant to ensure quality of service to consumers, it did not lay down any quality of service. “What it does is to penalise service providers even though they conform to the 2% standard laid down by the quality of service regulations, 2009,” the bench said.
The SC order also stated that Trai’s claim that all stakeholders were consulted is only partly correct. “While it is true that all stakeholders were consulted, but unfortunately nothing is disclosed as to why service providers were incorrect when they said that call drops were due to various reasons, some of which cannot be said to be because of the fault of the service provider. Indeed, the regulation, in assuming that every call drop is a deficiency of service on the part of the service provider, is plainly incorrect,” the order said.
While the striking down of the regulation comes as a huge relief for the operators who had earlier lost the case in the Delhi High Court and had moved the SC on an appeal, it is a huge setback for the Trai chairman, RS Sharma, as it was his first regulation after taking over the office last year in July.
Though the government had no role in the regulation as tariff is Trai’s domain, it is seen as a setback for the former also because telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had taken on himself the task to put an end to call drops.
Reacting to the SC order, Prasad said, “As far the judgment is concerned, Trai regulation is under scrutiny. Therefore, Trai needs to take a call. As far as government obligation is concerned, we shall continue to persuade telecom operators to provide good service.”
The Cellular Operators Association of India and the Association of Unified Service Providers of India — the two telecom bodies that had challenged the regulation — welcomed the SC order, saying telecom operators were committed to work with Trai “on the core issues that impede the delivery of quality of service such as availability of affordable spectrum and timely permissions for locating our cell towers”.
In fact, Trai had found itself in a spot while the hearing was going on in the SC when it was discovered that within a month of coming out with the ruling in October last year, it itself came out with a technical paper that said operators are not alone to blame for call drops.
Instead, it blamed lack of spectrum available with the operators in proportion to their subscriber base; change in their frequency band as a result of the government’s re-farming policy; resistance to installation of sufficient towers by resident welfare associations for fear of radiation leading to health hazards, EMF radiation norms for base transceiver stations being 10 times more stringent than several developed nations; and illegal boosters by residents to boost in-building coverage as the main reasons for increased call drops. Interestingly, the paper also noted that despite such constraints, broadly the operators are well within the 2% norm for call drops. It is only in certain pockets that they exceed this level.