Vodafone Plea Against Telecom Regulator’s Recommendation Premature: Centre

New Delhi: The Centre today termed as “premature” the plea by telecom major Vodafone challenging TRAI’s recommendation to impose Rs. 1,050 crore penalty on it for not providing inter-connectivity to Reliance Jio.

Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Sanjay Jain, appearing for the Centre, argued before Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva that Vodafone’s plea was a “complete abuse of process of court” as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had only made a recommendation and the government was yet to form an opinion.

The ASG opposed the maintainability of the petition, saying once the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) of the Ministry of Communication takes a decision, then it is an appealable order.

He also questioned whether the telecom major had any material with it to show that the government would be influenced by TRAI’s recommendation.

The court, thereafter, gave the Ministry and TRAI two weeks time to file their replY on the issue of maintainability of the petition and listed it for hearing on February 6.

During the brief arguments, the court suggested that before forming an opinion the DoT may also consider objections raised by Vodafone in its plea along with the recommendation of TRAI.

However, senior advocate Rajiv Nayar, appearing for Vodafone, did not agree with the suggestion and urged the court to decide whether TRAI exceeded its jurisdiction by giving the recommendation.

On December 22, 2016, the court had refrained from directing the Centre or any other authority not to act upon TRAI’s recommendation as no one except the regulator was a party in the case.

The court had, thereafter, made DoT a respondent in the matter.

On last date of hearing, Vodafone had claimed that Reliance Jio (RJio) has gone to the Competition Commission of India (CCI) with the recommendation of TRAI.

TRAI has recommended imposition of a fine of Rs. 50 crore for each of the 21 circles of Vodafone, except in Jammu and Kashmir, coming to a total of Rs. 1,050 crore.

Vodafone has claimed that the entire process adopted by TRAI was “arbitrary” as Reliance announced Jio offer on September 5-6, 2016 and had thereafter made payment for “augmentation of interconnection links” on September 25, 2016, after which there was a 90-day period to provide inter-connectivity.

It has also contended that TRAI does not have the power to recommend imposition of penalty and it can only recommend revocation of licence for breach of licence conditions and sought setting aside of the recommendation.

The telecom major has argued that TRAI has the power to impose “financial disincentives” for breach of Quality of Service regulations and to ensure compliance of terms and conditions of licence.

Vodafone has also said that no proper hearing was given to it by TRAI before issuance of the recommendation of October 21, 2016.

TRAI, in its recommendation to the DoT, had said it has found Vodafone to be non-compliant with licence conditions and service quality norms given the high rate of call failures and congestion at interconnect points for RJio.

The regulatory authority also noted that denial of interconnection by some existing operators, including Vodafone, to RJio “appears to be with the ulterior motive to stifle competition and is anti-consumer”.

TRAI had also recommended imposition of penalty of Rs. 1,050 crore on Airtel, at Rs. 50 crore for each of its 21 circles, and Rs. 950 crore on Idea Cellular for 19 circles.