LEGAL/POLICY

Jio, Airtel Spar With Tech Cos Over Spectrum Delicensing; Want Govt To Protect Spectrum-Related Investments

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India’s private telcos and global tech giants sparred over accessing commercial spectrum bands to provide fast mobile broadband services at a key Department of Telecommunications (DoT) meeting on Wednesday to discuss the country’s spectrum allocations roadmap.

Top telcos Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio called for protection of their spectrum-related investments, warning that any move to give non-telecom companies access to top-grade airwave bands without auctions would put billions of dollars of their investments at risk and also upset the level-playing field in the telecom sector.

US majors Intel and Cisco, besides the Broadband India Forum (BIF) that represents global tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Amazon amongst others, pushed back, saying the government must quickly open up key 5G spectrum in the 6 Ghz and V bands to ring in unlicensed technologies like WiFi-6 that offer 5G-like speeds for driving mass broadband penetration in rural India at affordable rates.

India’s telecom sector, in the efforts of enabling policies including more quantum of the spectrum, is set to establish new benchmarks in the next-generation network deployments and service delivery.

“…5G and WiFi 6 are complementary. Both have a solid evolution path for next decade. We are a strong player in this ecosystem and research is being done in Bangalore. It is critical to provide both license and unlicensed spectrum for greater societal benefits,” Intel’s representative Valsa Williams said at the meeting.

BIF director general Rajat Mukarji added that both 6 Ghz and 60 Ghz, or the V band, should be opened up for proliferation of WiFi as a huge amount of unlicensed airwaves need to be exploited for rural India.

Telcos are vehemently opposed, saying such a move, if allowed, would enable these global tech giants, who don’t hold a telecom license, to offer fast internet connectivity at 5G-like speeds to potentially over a billion people at a fraction of the cost, destroying the business case for 5G mobile broadband services in India.

Airtel’s chief regulatory officer Rahul Vatts said telcos have taken a larger chunk of the spectrum and committed Rs 3 lakh-crore in the last 10 years. “These large investments need to be protected and the larger regulatory question in the debate over licensed versus unlicensed spectrum must be addressed.”

Jio’s regulatory head Ravi Gandhi, in turn, said an “auction remains the best and most transparent way to allocate spectrum,” which, he added, would also be in line with a Supreme Court ruling in the matter.

The senior Jio executive, in fact, cautioned the government to take utmost care before delicensing premium spectrum, keeping telco investments in mind and the need for a level-playing field. “If we delicense, we may not be able to take it back,” Gandhi said.

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