Telcos fined though new interconnect policy in works
Though Trai appears to have struck a blow for consumers, and competition, by recommending a R3,050 crore penalty on Airtel/Vodafone/Idea—the Attorney General, reportedly, cleared the way for this last week—for not providing RJio enough Points of Interconnection (PoI), the telecom regulator is guilty of not reading its own rules. As Trai has said in the past, and everyone recognises, interconnection is the key to telecom. Which is why, starting from 1994 when private firms were allowed in the business, incumbents have tried to deny or delay interconnection facilities to new telcos. So, from time to time, Trai has come out with rules on interconnection. While the principle of fair-play and non-discrimination was established, however, the exact terms were left for operators to negotiate. To ensure timely provision of PoI, a 90-day window was decided. Over time, telcos like RJio protested this 90-day window was too large and several other problems were also pointed out by other telcos.
Since Trai was aware of these, it is odd that it was not proactive enough to come out with solutions in the form of firm interconnect guidelines, on the rates, the time taken to give PoIs, how the requirement of PoIs were to be calculated, and so on. While Trai was quick to recommend a penalty on telcos, and the department of telecommunications in processing this, it was only on October 21 last year, that the regulator came out with a consultation paper that, among others, asked if the 90-day window was too large—if this is the subject of consultation now, how could the telcos be penalised before clear rules were put in place since they had, in any case, provided the PoIs well within the 90-day rule? Had the 90-day window been reduced to, say, 30 days, surely the incumbent telcos would have had to provide the PoI faster than they did? And why was the licence agreement left so open-ended when it said telcos had to provide one or more PoIs ‘as are reasonably required and are of sufficient capacity and in sufficient number’? It is this interpretation of ‘reasonable’ and ‘sufficient’ that allowed RJio to say it was not getting enough PoIs and for the incumbents to say they had more than provided for RJio’s needs—this is presumably why one of the questions in the October consultation paper was “what should be the criteria to ensure that inflated demand for ports is not made by interconnection seeker?”.
What complicates matters in the RJio case is the fact that incumbent telcos have been arguing the money paid for interconnection—the Interconnect Usage Charge (IUC)—does not reflect the costs they are incurring given how costly spectrum has become; and, given that RJio is offering free voice calls, the huge asymmetry in traffic is clogging their networks. Since all the issues are interconnected—RJio would not have as quick a subscriber build-up if it didn’t offer free services and so wouldn’t require as many PoIs—the country’s courts, including the TDSAT, are to be blamed for not ruling quickly on the cases filed on these issues.