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India's TRAI Left With Empty Chair

Catherine Haslam
LR Mobile News Analysis
Catherine Haslam
3/23/2009

The chairmanship of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) may be one of the most important and high profile roles in the Indian telecom sector, but it will be left vacant from today following the retirement of the incumbent, Nripendra Misra, who has not been replaced.

That leaves India's carrier community without a stable regulatory body and without a date for the auction of 3G spectrum. (See Indian Operator Expects Lengthy 3G Delay .)

The process to appoint a new chairman began on February 5, when the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), which established the TRAI in 1997, advertised the 300,000 Rupees-per-month ($5,940) post. The closing date for entries was March 6.

However, the government committee established to make the appointment has yet to reach its conclusion.

The TRAI, which, among other duties, makes recommendations to the DoT about potential telecom policy, will be run by A.K. Sawhney, one of its two full-time members, until a new chairman is appointed, according to this story in The Hindu newspaper and other local media reports.

The Hindu article further suggests a new chairman will not be appointed until after the national government elections that begin on April 16 and last nearly a month, although a shortlist of candidates has been drawn up. That shortlist comprises mostly government officials, the exception being P.V. Ramadas, vice president of IT firm HCL BPO Services.

With his tenure coming to an end, Misra has been rushing through a raft of recommendations in the past month on a range of critical issues, including the revision of termination charges, a lock-in period for operator investors, and the improvement of rural connectivity. (See TRAI Cuts Interconnect Fees, TRAI Recommends Lock-In, and India Adds 13M Subs in February).

However, the current delay in the auction of 3G spectrum means there is a major piece of unfinished business for the new chairman to address.

An industry insider close to the operator community in India told Light Reading that sorting out the 3G delay has to be top of the new chairman's "to do" list. The insider, who requested anonymity, said the delay is "a scandal that shows how weak the Indian government can be on certain areas, such as organizing a transparent auction."

It seems, though, that while it's hoped the appointment of a new chairman might help facilitate proceedings, the finger of blame over the auction delay is not being pointed at TRAI. "We believe the delay in the auction has got nothing to do with TRAI at all," says C.S. Rao, chairman of the India Chapter of the WiMAX Forum . "We believe TRAI team did everything they could in this instance."

Of more importance, it seems, is the result of the upcoming national government elections and the appointment of a minister of Communications and Information Technology, who is responsible for the Department of Telecommunications.

Rajat Murkaji, chief corporate affairs officer at Indian mobile operator Idea Cellular Ltd. believes a new minister could reignite the 3G auction process. "There is expected to be a new minister, and, hence, to a great extent, the next agenda is likely to be set by him."

Once the new minister is in place though, Murkaji expects the "primary activity for the new [TRAI] chairman is likely to be closure of the 3G debate and delivering a rural thrust to the next phase of mobile network expansion."

Rao at the WiMAX Forum hopes for a different agenda, one that centers on the allocation of spectrum for wireless broadband services and getting the same tax breaks for WiMax as exist for GSM and CDMA technologies.

He wants the new TRAI chief to recommend that 700MHz spectrum be allocated for BWA (broadband wireless access) and WiMax-based services, and that an additional 10 MHz per operator be added to the already identified 20 MHz slots in the 2.3 and 2.5 GHz frequency bands. (See WiMAX Forum Applauds India.)

Rao further hopes for a recommendation that customs duties on WiMax customer equipment be changed to a rate on a par with 3G devices such as handsets and smartphones.

— Catherine Haslam, Asia Editor, Light Reading

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