Idea Cellular is the latest Indian operator to go live with 3G services, and the long expected spectrum sharing deal with rivals Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Essar could be around the corner.
Idea has switched on commercial 3G services in parts of the Himachal Pradesh telecoms circle, starting with the state capital Shimla and the city of Baddi. It is offering a wide range of services including mobile TV, the Idea Mall app store and video on demand.
The operator says it will have its 3G services available in 200 towns by the middle of April, 750 by year end and 4,000 by the close of 2012.
Its talks with Bharti and Vodafone are also said to be in the final stages, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. None of the operators gained 3G licenses in all 22 of India's operating regions or circles, so they will need to sign roaming or spectrum sharing deals to gain national coverage.
The larger players are likely to want this level of coverage, and a Bharti/Vodafone/Idea alliance would create a strong contender to the state-owned providers (MTNL has 3G licenses in Delhi and Mumbai and BSNL everywhere else).
Among the three, Bharti gained 3G spectrum in 13 circles, Idea in 11 and Vodafone in nine, although the latter was more heavily focused on large metros, and paid more than twice what Idea shelled out. The three companies already share their towers via their joint venture Indus Towers, which has about 110,000 locations.
Idea may also be considering the sale of its 7,500 towers that are not part of Indus, which could raise it about $1 billion towards its new roll-outs.
So far, Indian operators to have launched live services are Bharti, Vodafone, Aircel, Reliance and Tata Teleservices, while BSNL and MTNL gained their franchises ahead of last year's auction and are already building out their offerings.