Can CDMA cos get GSM spectrum?

While the controversy on the future of 3G spectrum is consuming the industry, Trai and the government alike, a new challenge relating to 2G spectrum is emerging in the forefront.

According to sources in Trai, it is set to float a consultation paper any day specifically to address the question of whether a CDMA operator is eligible to apply for GSM spectrum.

This issue specifically relates to Reliance Infocomm, a nationwide CDMA operator that also operates GSM in eight circles.
At the heart of the controversy is a policy decision made by the government in 1999 allowing technology neutrality for mobile licences in India. Now Reliance, which has made its ambitions to enter the GSM mobile business clear, has applied for 2G spectrum in the GSM band rather than the CDMA band, in 16 circles where it wishes to operate GSM services.

The association for GSM operators, COAI, is opposing this possibility of a crossover of technologies or allocation of 2G GSM spectrum for CDMA operators on grounds that GSM operators deserve priority, especially as spectrum is a scarce resource.

COAI quotes a 1999 case of BPL mobile (now Hutch Essar), which was denied CDMA frequency from the government on grounds that it was earmarked for basic service applications. COAI says a DoT notification of April 2001 also supports their point.

However, the fact that government-owned operator, MTNL actually uses a single licence to operate both CDMA and GSM – Garuda and Dolphin, makes the debate more complex. If MTNL can be allowed to operate simultaneous technologies using a single licence then why can’t others, counters Reliance.

To help resolve these complexities, the DoT has written to Trai seeking its intervention in this matter. Ironically, the second CDMA operator, Tata Teleservices, tends to side with COAI. Confirming its commitment to CDMA, the company believes technology neutrality cannot be interpreted to mean a combination of both technologies. An operator must choose one technology and grow with it or, if it wants to migrate to an alternative technology, it must forego spectrum in the first, it says.

CDMA was once seen as the new kid on the block, a technology expected to challenge GSM’s dominance. However, GSM has since evolved manifold and continues to have an edge over CDMA especially when it comes to roaming.

2G spectrum refers to the spectrum that is currently used by GSM and CDMA mobile operators to serve nearly 160 million subscribers across the country. 3G spectrum, on the other hand, is available in separate bands distinct from 2G and is considered more efficient, especially when it comes to non-voice applications. Several developed countries have multiple operators in this regime.