Airtel can’t enrol new 3G phone users in seven circles

New Delhi, April 11 (IANS) In a setback to Bharti Airtel, the Supreme Court Thursday restrained the company from enrolling new subscribers and extending to them 3G services in seven circles where it does not have licences.

An apex court bench of Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice Vikramajit Sen restrained Bharti Airtel in response to a plea of Reliance Communications.

The court also issued notice to the government and Reliance Communications asking them to reply in two weeks.

The seven circles where Bharti Airtel did not have rights to operate 3G facilities are: Kolkata, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh East and Kerala.

But, in a breather, the court said that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) will not take any coercive steps against Bharti Airtel for not paying the penalty of Rs.350 crore, imposed on it for providing 3G in seven circles.

Each of the seven circles where Bharti Airtel was operating without licence but under roaming arrangement attracted a penalty of Rs.50 crore.

The apex court order came in the wake of the hearing of a petition by Bharti Airtel that challenged the Delhi High Court’s April 4 order. The high court had restored the DoT order that asked the company to immediately stop providing 3G services to customers in circles where it did not have licence for such operations.

The DoT had termed as illegal the roaming arrangement between Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular, by which Bharti Airtel was extending 3G facilities to customers in the seven circles where it did not hold the licences to operate such services.

The court said that it would hold the next hearing of the matter on May 9.

Appearing for Reliance Communications, senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi told the court that roaming arrangement between three service providers Vodafone, Idea Cellular and Bharti Airtel was illegal.

Rohatgi told the court that while Reliance Communications had paid Rs.7,000 crore for securing licence for providing 3G services, Bharti Airtel was merely enrolling customers without incurring any cost.

Senior counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who appeared for Bharti Airtel, said that licence conditions permitted the roaming arrangement.

Rohatgi countered that if that was so, then “what is the use of the auctioning of the circles”.

Urging the court to direct Bharti Airtel to pay the penalty of Rs.350 crore, he pressed the plea that Bharti Airtel should be asked not to enrol new customers.

Earlier Singhvi took the court through the conditions of the licence and the clarification note attached to it contending that Bharti Airtel was well within its rights to enter such a roaming arrangement to provided 3G services.

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