The Supreme Court on Friday struck a balance between regulatory principles and competitiveness of telecom operators by way of offering segmented tariffs to their high Arpu (average revenue per user) customers. While it said that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is well within its powers to ask for any information from the telecom operators with regard to their segmented offers (discounts which are not part of standard tariff package), this came with a caveat that the same cannot be published or disclosed to competitors. This restraint does not apply to normal tariff packages, which are in public domain.
What goes in favour of the operators (Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea) is that they have not been stopped from offering segmented offers as initially directed by Trai in 2018 on the grounds that such tariffs are discriminatory in nature. The telecom operators had wanted both – to offer segmented tariffs as well not provide any details of it to Trai on the ground of confidentiality.
In December, 2018 while setting aside Trai’s regulation prohibiting Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea from providing segmented offers, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) had said that such offers have always been in force and could not be clubbed with regular tariff schemes which need to be reported to the regulator. The TDSAT said that segmented offers are not discriminatory as made out by Trai as they are offered to a class or segment of subscribers, over and above a tariff scheme. A discrimination comes into effect if a same class of subscribers are provided different treatment and there’s a complain. However, it had allowed Trai to ask operators to submit it any segmented offers if it wanted to examine whether they were discriminatory or not but the same has to be kept confidential.
The Trai had moved the Supreme Court against the TDSAT order, but the apex court had refused to stay the ruling. The regulator had then modified its order to seek information on segmented offers from the telcos for a limited period. The Trai’s plea was opposed by Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea on the ground that it would violate commercial confidentiality and help rivals poach their subscribers.
On Friday, a bench led by Chief Justice SA Bobde while upholding Trai’s powers to issue such directions for disclosure of information/details regarding segmented offers said that the telecom regulator wanting “to ensure adherence to the regulatory principles of transparency, non-discrimination and non-predation, cannot be said, at least prima facie to be either illegal or wholly unjustified”.
According to the apex court, if Trai did not have any power to call for details regarding segmented offers and if it was a case of complete lack of jurisdiction, the TDSAT remanding the matter back to the Authority for settling the issue of segmented offers through open consultation process would not have risen.
However, the apex court said that “it is the duty and responsibility of Trai to ensure that such information is kept confidential and is not made available to the competitors or to any other person”.