In an action that has rocked the Indian mobile market to the core (and the crore) and delivered the government a knee to the collective goolies, the Supreme Court has revoked every single one of the 122 GSM licences that were granted to various mobile operators across the sub-Continent in 2008 - on the grounds that they had been awarded "in a totally arbitrary, capricious, and unconstitutional way contrary to the public interest." Martyn Warwick reports.
However, whilst players will have to rebid for 85 of the now defunct licences, the holders of the remaining 37 (such as Bharti Aitel, Reliance Communications and Vodafone) will get theirs back in due course. The revocations apply alike to both rich, established players such as Tata Teleservices and Idea Cellular and upstart new entrants to a crowded and cut-throat market, such as Uninor, an expensive joint venture between Unitech and Telenor of Norway. Telenor has invested upwards of US$3 billion in the Indian mobile sector and holds a 67.25 per cent stake in Unitech Wireless, which in turn, operates as Uninor.
This "very serious attack on Telenor's investments" has so enraged Telenor's CEO, the usually placid and pragmatic Jon Fredrik Baksaas, that he is threatening to withdraw completely from the Indian market.
Such a move would have far-reaching consequences for mobile services in the sub-continent and could result in other overseas investors leaving the country because of what some analysts are calling "overt political intervention" and "capricious interference" in the market.
The Indian Supreme Court's remarkable ruling came in the aftermath of allegations by various non-governmental organisations and private individuals claiming that for 2G operators should not be allowed to continue to hold licences after the India's Comptroller and Auditor General opined that the bidding process was compromised. The licences were not sold at auction to the highest bidder but were handed out to companies at the whim of the Telecoms Ministry.
The fact that the ruling was published in 2010 but has been acted upon two years later is par for the course in a country where the rusted mills of justice grind so slowly as to appear almost immobile to the rest of the world.
Despite revoking the licences, on the grounds that sales of them have been adjudged to be "lacking in transparency, open to ineligible bidders and sold at unbelievably low prices", the Supreme Court is allowing the the networks to continue to operate for "up to four months" whilst a new and better policed licencing process is put in place under the aegis of the TRAI (the Telecoms Regulatory Authority of India).
And, of course, there's the 'elephant in the room' (a phrase particularly appropriate for for the country in question), i.e. the little matter of the vast majority of the Indian population being deprived of mobile comms for the forseeable future and the social, economic and political uproar that would follow.
Although 122 licences were issued in 2008, they went to just eight companies; Uninor (the aforementioned joint venture (jv) between Unitech and Norway's Telenor), Sistema Shyam (a jv between Sistema of Russia and India's Shyam Group), Etisalat DB (a jv between Etisalat of the UAE and the DB Group, formerly known as Swan), S Tel (a jv between Bahrain Telecommunications and Siva Group), Videocon, Tata Telecom, Idea Cellular and Loop Telecom.
But, as is usually the case, it's an ill wind that blows nobody good and the likes of Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications and Vodafone could clean up as the Supreme Court's decision is very likely to lead to rapid consolidation in a market where competition has resulted in some of the lowest-price mobile services in the world. However, any such consolidation is certain to result in extensive increases in tariff rates for Indian subscribers, both corporate and private.
All the 122 GSM licences were granted during the tenure of the then telecoms minister, Andimuthu Raja. That gentlemen is currently enjoying state hospitality in New Delhi's central prison where he is on remand waiting his trial for corruption in what the Indian media has, for several years past, been calling "The 2G Scam."
As the licences were "granted" rather than being subject an open competitive process, it is adjudged that the Indian exchequer has been deprived of some 1.8 trillion rupees (that's about US$35 BILLION) in revenues. However, the Supreme Court has effectively made a rod for the nation's own back by what is seen by many as an unnecessarily delayed over-reaction that will turn India into "an unfavourable investment market for international companies".
For example, the outraged Jon Fredrik Baksaas maintains his company is being discriminated against. He told Reuters, "We met every inch of that regulation of that licence. We brought competition to the Indian market just to see a ruling that has significant retroactive consequences. It is an action that we have never seen in any country, anywhere before. It has created a high level of uncertainty that will impact activities with our partner Unitech".
It now seems likely that the only way to resolve what has now become a political issue will be for national governments to get involved. For example, the Norwegian government is a major shareholder in Telenor and won't be happy about seeing its Indian investments being devalued or about having to re-apply for a licence Telenor already holds. Estimations are that Norwegian operator would have to pay some £2.1 billion more in a rebidding process for a licence it already holds - not least because although the licences were granted in 2008, they went at prices that had been fixed as early as 2001.
The whole thing is an unconscionable mess with some foreign investors threatening to pull out of the Indian market altogether and others rubbing their hands in glee at the discomfiture of erstwhile rivals and in expectations of big profits down the line.
And where does this leave India's 3G prospects? Up the creek without a paddle, that's where. Operators are already at loggerheads over the details of 3G roaming agreements but India's Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal, another slow-moving bureaucratic juggernaut, has yet again again postponed adjudication of the matter even as the likes of Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications, Vodafone, Idea Cellular and Tata Teleservices face accusations, from a federal auditor, no less, that between them they owe 16 billion rupees in unpaid licence fees.
Still, life goes on in a land where the notion of "manana" dictates the realities of daily existence, but without the driving sense of urgency that frames the concept in Spain.
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