The group of ministers headed by Finance Minister Jaswant Singh has not yet resolved the issue of limited mobility for wireless in local loop-based basic telecom operators. Neither has it firmed up views on unified licensing.
In an interview to Business Standard, Jaswant Singh said, "The GoM held only preliminary discussions in this regard. There cannot be agreement since all members of the group were not present. What the GoM could have was a viewpoint, which it did, on five issues. But there was no decision on three issues, including that of higher spectrum allocation."
This puts paid, at least for the time being, to claims from certain quarters that the GoM had given a clearance in principle to the two most vexed issues of unified licensing and limited mobility for WLL service providers.
While Singh hoped that the GoM's decision would not leave any side unhappy, he emphasised there could be only one winner.
"The GoM is not attempting to discharge its responsibility subserving the interests of one or the other," he said.
Singh said the telecommunications minister had prepared a note on the question whether the WLL licence terms were being violated by the basic telecom operators and circulated it among the GoM members in their first meeting last Thursday.
Queries were also raised whether it was technically possible to raise electronic firewalls to prevent this from happening, he said.
According to Singh, if electronic firewalls cannot be put in place, then players will violate it. "You have to do both. You cannot have a violation of the country's laws as laid down by the authorities and the regulatory bodies and yet you cannot have a system that seems to be holding everything up," the finance minister said.
The text of the interview on issues relating to telecom follows:
What exactly is happening in the group of ministers' meeting on telecom? Is there an agreement to go ahead in principle with unified licensing or is the issue still to be finalised?
We have about eight issues that were the terms of reference given to us by the Cabinet for examining. Out of these eight, there was clearly a viewpoint on five of them -- that this is the way we should proceed.
On the issue of spectrum, since it is an asset belonging to the ministry of defence, it was decided that I should have a discussion with George Fernandes.
There were two other issues. A limited discussion on WLL, whether it should stay with the basic operators or not? I had spoken to Yashwant Sinha on what approach the GoM should adopt.
So, what was held was only a preliminary discussion in this regard. There cannot be an agreement since all members of the GoM were not present, but what we can have is a viewpoint.
We need to find a final answer that should not be violative of the existing rules, regulations and laws and yet it should let us get out of this terrible maze of litigation, counter-litigation and cross-litigation that currently seems to afflict the entire telecom sector.
If we do not address this issue of limited mobility -- because amongst the eight issues this is the most important -- then we are likely to cripple a growth industry with huge potential, which has direct relevance to the consumer interest also. That day, we left it and we defined some broad parameters around which it can be done.
There was also a report that the communications minister had prepared on the question whether the WLL terms were being violated. That was circulated to the GoM members.
There were also queries that were raised whether it is possible technically to raise electronic firewalls to prevent this from happening. If you cannot have electronic firewalls, then people will clearly violate it.
You have to do both. You cannot have a violation of the country's laws as laid down by the authorities and the regulatory bodies, and yet you cannot have a system that seems to be holding everything up. So you have to find an answer, in equity, in justice and in growth. That's a challenge.
So, there is no GoM view as yet.
I cannot assert a viewpoint till formally a view is taken by the group of ministers. It will be wrong for me, particularly as chairman of the group, to say that X, Y or Z will be the route.
Is this something where some win and some lose, or can it be win-win?
The GoM has to go beyond winners and losers. There has to be clearly only one winner in this, and that will be the country's interest. The GoM is not attempting to discharge its responsibility subserving the interests of one or the other.
Not subserving. There are interests on both sides. So, whichever side you lean on, the other side...
I don't think it's the way to describe that -- which is the side we lean on. I must address myself to the issues, for example, that the cell operators raise. And I must address myself to the future after assessing the present, which seems to be (a) terrible jumble.
At the end of the day, somebody is going to be unhappy....I hope not. I can't have a perfect answer. I don't think there is ever a perfect answer in life. I have often said this, and that really becomes the crux. Most of the time, the challenge of governance -- and that of just and fair governance -- is to find the correct balance between equally valid and just but competing interests.