The country’s largest telecom operator Bharti Airtel has dragged the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT), alleging that the regulator has been a mute spectator to the gross violations committed by Reliance Jio Infocomm of all the regulatory orders put in place with regard to tariffs since 1999 till February 2016. The basic charge of Bharti against Trai is that as per regulatory orders in force, there can be no such thing as free voice call as the interconnect usage charge (IUC) acts as a floor for retail tariff. Further, the promotional plan offered by any operator can only be for a period of 90 days, which RJio has violated and the Trai has failed to pass any directions against it.
The TDSAT bench, which heard the matter on Friday, has asked the Trai to take a decision on the matters raised by Bharti and revert to it in the next 10 days. Though Bharti’s petition is against Trai for failing to act on its own regulatory orders, RJio, which was present in the court, said it wanted to be a party to the case, to which the TDSAT asked it to submit an application. The next hearing on the matter is on January 6.
The TDSAT direction to Trai was on the latter’s submission before it that it has sent a notice to RJio. The bench said that it wants to know its decision within 10 days. This is the first time in Trai’s history that the definition and implementation of tariff orders and promotional schemes have been challenged in a court by an operator.
The implications of Bharti’s challenging Trai are grave since it means that as per various telecommunication tariff orders in force since 1999 till the present day, retail tariff cannot be lower than the IUC rate, which currently is at 14 paise per minute. Bharti has quoted various orders that state that the purpose of putting a floor rate while moving towards forbearance was that tariffs remain non-discriminatory, non-predatory and there’s no element of cross-subsidisation. It has charged Trai for overlooking its own orders while passing a decision on October 20 that the tariffs of RJio do not violate any regulatory provision. Trai’s October 20 decision was after the incumbent operators, including Bharti, had petitioned Trai that RJio’s tariffs violate the TTO of 2004.
It has charged Trai for being lax on another ground — that of allowing RJio to continue with its promotional offer beyond the period of 90 days. Jio’s commercial services were launched on September 5 and were initially valid till December 31. When the incumbents complained that it went beyond the 90-day limit, Trai said that it will come to an end on December 3. However, on December 1, RJio announced that subscribers joining its fold from December 4 will get free services till December 31 and the existing subscribers will get free services till March 31, 2017. Bharti has said in its petition that Trai failed to implement its own direction. The company said that it had written to the regulator regarding the violation on December 9 but the regulator did not take any action.
Urging the TDSAT to quash Trai’s October 20 order, which states that tariffs of RJio are IUC-compliant, non-predatory and non-discriminatory, Bharti has also prayed that the promotional offer of RJio be stopped immediately, as it is leading to imbalanced traffic and choking the networks of the incumbent operators.