Bharti Airtel has suffered a serious jolt with the Supreme Court barring the telecom giant from adding new customers in seven circles where it does not have 3G spectrum licence until the next court hearing.
The SC, however, allowed the operator to continue its operations in these circles for existing customers. The apex court gave the directives while hearing an appeal by Airtel against the government ban on 3G pacts between carriers.
A bench comprising Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice Vikramajit Sen issued notices to the Centre and Reliance Communications Ltd (RCom) and asked for their response within two weeks on the petition filed by Airtel. The court asked the respondents to file rejoinder within two weeks, and posted the matter for hearing on May 9.
Earlier, the telecom department on March 15 sent a notice to Bharti Airtel, asking to stop providing 3G services in circles it did not own spectrum licence and also slapped a penalty of Rs. 350 crore, Rs. 50 crore per circle. The Department of Telecom maintains providing 3G services outside licenced zones through roaming pacts is against the licence terms and conditions.
On March 18, a single-judge bench of the Delhi High Court stayed the operation of the notification. But, on a plea filed by RCom, a division bench of the Delhi HC on April 4 vacated the stay on the notification. Later, Airtel took the matter to the SC, which on April 8 asked the government not to take any “coercive steps” against the telecom giant, and sought maintenance of status quo, until the matter is heard on April 11. Vodafone and Idea have also joined Bharti in the apex court.
The verdict if goes against Airtel, a large number of subscribers of the circles namely Kolkata, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh East and Kerala will be hit hard. Airtel is most likely to make all out efforts to retain its services in these circles.