Call drop case: SC wants to hear more from TRAI

The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the telecom regulator TRAI whether it would relook its decision imposing penalty on the telecom service providers for call drops in the wake of its own technical paper endorsing the position taken by them.

Asking the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India whether it still maintained position on penalty for the call drops or would consider re-examining it in the light of its own technical paper of November 2015, a bench of Justice Kurian Joseph and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman told it to file an affidavit stating its position before next date of hearing (March 30).

“Factually, it appears that nobody had seen technical papers on the day of the framing of the regulation (imposing penalty for call drops). Please take into account the technical paper and tell us whether you consider amending the regulations or you still want to stand by it. Whatever you have to say, tell us with reasons,” it said.

The court’s observation came as senior counsel Kapil Sibal appearing for the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) took the court through the technical paper pointing out that it endorses the position being taken by the service providers before the court.

Pointing to the phenomenal growth of the telecom sector with every day calls made accounting for one billion minutes and revenue generation of Rs 70,000 crore, he said that for the growth of the sector, the relationship between the government and the telecom sector should be transparent and the attitude of penalising must go.

As Sibal said that there was time when for one call from mobile phone, he used to pay Rs 32, Justice Nariman recalled that in old days, even a lightning call used to materialise in at least two hours with urgent call having a little chance of getting through.

Assailing the oft-repeated government position that after giving the licences and spelling out the terms and conditions, the rest was the industry’s burden, he said that technical paper clearly states the problem facing the sector including paucity of spectrum, interferences, shortage of towers, electromagnetic frequency, Right to way (RoW), multiple agencies including civic bodies for getting clearance for putting up the towers and so on.

Sibal wondered if by imposing penalty on service providers for their call drops, the problems being faced by them at the hands of different agencies could be solved. Referring to the South Delhi Municipal Corporation’s decision to seal and demolish 2,000 illegal towers, he asked if it would not result in call drops.

Referring to aviation sector where a flight is delayed or aborted on account of dense fog or a snag, he asked would the regulator ask the airlines to compensate the passengers. “Similarly in power sector, there are breakdowns… are we going to ask them to compensate the consumers,” he asked.

“In telecom sector imponderables are far greater,” said Sibal, stressing that nowhere in the world do such penalties exist.

When Justice Kurian said that in Japan for a delayed or aborted flight, passengers are compensated, Sibal said: “When you have a surplus of $30 trillion you can do it. But we are a growing economy. Emerging economy. There are problems we are grappling with.”

The COAI and the Association of Unified Service Provider of India (USPAI) have challenged the TRAI October 16, 2015 notification obligating the service provider to compensate the consumer for the three dropped calls paying Re.1 for each of the call a day.

The penalty was to come in force from January 1, 2016.

The Delhi High Court on February 29 upheld the order of the TRAI making it mandatory for cellular operators to compensate subscribers for call drops. The industry associations had then moved the apex court.