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100 per cent network coverage is against Law of Physics, telcos tell SC

As the Supreme Court on Friday agreed to immediately hear a petition filed by cellular operators against a law making them strictly liable to consumers for call drops, telecoms said a “100 per cent call drop-free network” is impossible under the Law of Physics and will cost them hundreds of crores in compensation payable to customers every month.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), on the other hand, maintained that its Telecom Consumers Protection (9th Amendment) Regulations, 2015 — which was upheld by the Delhi High Court last month — was framed purely in the interest of the common man.

Admitting the challenge against the regulations, a Bench of Justices Kurian Joseph and Rohinton Nariman asked the Centre and the TRAI to file their response on the petition filed against the February 29 order of the Delhi High Court upholding the law’s validity. This petition has been filed jointly by the Cellular Operators Association of India, and telecom majors such as Bharti Airtel, Aircel, Vodafone, Idea Cellular and Telenor.

At one point, Justice Nariman orally remarked that he lived next door to the Prime Minister but still suffered from call drops.

The debate in the court then moved on to how a strict liability can be imposed on service providers without even a mechanism to certify whether a call was dropped or never got connected at the receiver’s end.

Both the prosecution and defence advocates entered the realm of Physics to disprove each other’s arguments about the plethora of reasons behind call drops, which range from entering no coverage zone like a basement or lift when a conversation is on to complex terrains, moving vehicles, presence of huge water bodies, new buildings and even “landlords shutting off power”.

Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi, for TRAI and the Centre, asked “how many basements do we after all have in India? The regulation imposes liability only if the call is established at the receiver’s end. You say ‘hello’ and the phone gets cut.”

“We have done detailed studies. It (regulations) is in consumers’ interest,” Mr. Rohatgi stressed.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for telecoms, said “if it is my fault, we will pay. But we cannot be asked to pay compensation without any verifiable mechanism to determine the reasons for the call drops.”

The petition said TRAI has no power or authority to grant compensation. It said the regulations were inconsistent with the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. The petition said telecom licence issued to the companies under Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act do not prescribe 100 per cent coverage.

“The relationship between a telecom service provider (licensee) and the Department of Telecom as licensor is governed by the terms and conditions of the licence. The license does not provide the 100 per cent coverage,” the petition said.

“We will hear this issue immediately,” the apex court said. The case is posted for hearing on March 10.

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