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Tribunal stays hike in BSNL access charges

Our Bureau

NEW DELHI, July 10

IN a major relief to private basic operators, the Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has stayed the hike in interconnect access charges, sought to be levied by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) on local\STD and ISD calls.

Hearing the petition filed by five operators -- Tata Teleservices Ltd, Bharti Telenet Ltd, Hughes Telecom (I) Ltd, Shyam Telelink Ltd and HFCL Infotel Ltd -- the tribunal directed that they would not be required to pay the additional amounts till a final decision on the petition.

The counsel for the basic operators, Mr Kapil Sibal and Mr Ramji Srinivasan, argued that the increase in interconnection charges proposed by BSNL was contrary to TRAI's interconnection regulation and the interconnect agreement. The BSNL had no power to l evy any such demand or threaten suspension of interconnection, they said. The private operators had already agreed to pay the charges as determined by TRAI.

BSNL has been granted 10 days to file its reply and the matter will be heard on 31 July.

As per BSNL's proposal, the new access rates payable by the operators to BSNL for STD calls will go up from 40 per cent to 70 per cent, and for ISD calls from 55 per cent to 80 per cent. Even for local calls of 3 minutes duration, the proceeds, which are currently retained by the private operators, BSNL will get to retain 50 per cent of the call charge.

BSNL had earlier proposed to implement these new rates from June 1 but had to postpone it following opposition by the operators. Negotiations to work out a `middle path' failed, and in its final letter to the operators, BSNL set a deadline of June 22 for working out alternate arrangements, failing which it ``would have no alternative but to consider temporary suspension of the interconnect agreement''.

The petition to TDSAT points out that the current charges were decided by TRAI in May 1999 only as an interim arrangement. It is yet to finalise the cost-based tariffs and access charges. What is more, the capital cost and operating cost of unbundled net work service separately for local calls, STD calls and ISD calls is still not available.

``The expert committee in TRAI is looking into the various aspects of interconnection arrangements and charges. Therefore, the arbitrary changes proposed by BSNL will make the private operators absolutely unviable driving them out of business,'' it notes .

The key issue, the petition notes, is that with investments by the private operators running into over Rs 5,000 crore, it would be unfair to hike the access rates without waiting for the tariff rebalancing exercise.

Considering the minuscule one per cent market-share that all the BSOs put together have managed, it would be unfair and inequitable to ask them to pay a greater revenue share towards interconnection charges. It would eat into their revenues and could eve n make their operations unviable, the petition notes.

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