India has long been a land of many wonders, from Buddhism to the Taj Mahal, and regulator TRAI must rank among them with recent turns of events.
All the Indian telcos, which are usually at each others’ throats, have come out saying that they cannot operate under the new licensing system proposed. The GSMA has condemned the high reserve price. The chorus of opposition has been loud and clear.
At best, the Indian regulator could be accused of being overly optimistic and idealistic. What it is trying to do now that the 2G licences have been cancelled and are to be reauctioned is to withdraw the 900 MHz from 2G use and refarm that valuable spectrum for 3G. The problem is that while such a move might be laudable in small, developed countries such as Macau or even seriously considered in affluent Western Europe, it simply does not match up with the needs on the ground - which is for cheap 2G voice and SMS.
To compound things, the decision to auction off only 5 MHz of 1800-MHz at a time is simply to increase prices through creation of artificial scarcity. TRAI would like to think of this being an effective way at milking income for the country. Others, most notably the GSMA, view it as one step too far and one that would be detrimental to the country’s development on the whole and impact GDP negatively.
It all started easily enough. In 2008, 122 new licences were issued but on a first come, first serve approach with the price being the same as the prior licences issued in 2001. However, when there were more applicants than spectrum available, the natural thing was to have conducted an auction. That did not happen.
Instead, what happened was that there was an arbitrary line drawn under the applicants. Getting into such a list in time smacks of insider prior information and corruption - especially as in some cases, applications only had to be filed the same day for licences to be granted in time.
From that perspective, what the supreme court ordered in February this year was simply for the spectrum allocation to be re-done properly, that is, auctioned off in a fair process. If TRAI had stuck to just that none of the problems we are having today would have occurred.
There is a stark disconnect between the ambition of TRAI and its chairman and the reality on the ground. If one is to refarm 900-MHz 2G for 3G and replace it with limited range 1800-MHz 2G, you can imagine the devastation on the ground as alleys go quiet and rural areas get cut off. 900-MHz will be needed for many years to provide basic rural voice coverage in India. The idea of leapfrogging might make sense in some countries, but not for India, at least not now.
The hope is for the regulator to take note of the protests and comes to their senses, though ultimately it might be a political move that makes things happen.