CBI to approach TRAI in Reliance Infocomm case

CBI will seek help from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to ascertain how international calls were allegedly routed as local ones by Reliance Infocomm before its de-merger as the agency struggles to make headway in the case described by officials as “too technical”.

Though some CBI officials wanted to close the case in the absence of any law to tackle it at the time when the alleged crimes were committed, others called for approaching TRAI as the Telecom Dispute Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT), in its ruling, had termed the alleged auto-routing of calls as a threat to national security.

“The matter is being investigated. One has to understand that it is too technical a case,” said a senior CBI official who is still grappling with the details of the case.

After a year-long preliminary enquiry, the CBI last year registered a formal case against four top former officials of Reliance Infocomm – then director Manoj Modi, then CEO Akhil Gupta, A Shankar, then head of the firm’s corporate affairs wing, and Pankaj Panwar, then head regulator – and unknown BSNL officials for “masking” global calls as local ones and causing losses to the state exchequer.

Sources in the CBI said the agency would take into consideration the time when the alleged “masking” of calls occurred. This was an indication that the case may be closed as there was no law on such crimes at that time.

The ruling of telecom tribunal TDSAT had imposed a fine of Rs 150 crore on the company for allegedly breaching licence conditions.

Reliance Infocomm officials have been accused by the CBI of entering into a criminal conspiracy with certain BSNL officials and “masking” international calls as local ones through specially designed software.

Anil Ambani got Reliance Infocomm as part of an ownership settlement of the Reliance empire in June 2005 with his brother Mukesh Ambani.

According to the CBI, any call generated from a foreign country landed at one of three gateways in Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai, from where the calls were “masked” with the help of software and sent out as local ones to the Public System Telephone Network (PSTN).

The alleged re-routing of calls was done to avoid payment of the Access Deficit Charge, which private telecom operators have to pay to BSNL to offset its unremunerative services in rural areas.

So far, the CBI has sought a detailed report from the BSNL and quizzed Reliance Infocomm and BSNL’s chief technical officers about the alleged masking of calls by the private telecom giant to avoid payment of the fee, which initial estimates suggested cost the exchequer Rs 50 crore.

TDSAT, while imposing a penalty on Reliance Infocomm, said in its order that this breach had put the “security of the nation in jeopardy”.

Before the CVC handed over the case to CBI, the agency stumbled on to a nexus between some private telecom companies and DoT officials during its probe into illegal telephone exchanges functioning in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

CBI sources claimed telephone cards were circulated in the US and Canada, offering calls to India at 80 to 82 cents a minute. These cards were made available for evidence on record and an an overseas probe was not ruled out, they said.