NEW DELHI: After office hours on Friday, the telecom department faxed notices to Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular to terminate intra circle roaming (ICR) agreements for 3G services, instructing these companies to comply by 3 pm on Saturday. The move will impact the services of 5-10 million customers who are on the 3G networks of the three operators.

Not surprisingly, the move generated almost immediate protests from the telecom service providers. All the signals are in place for a full blown legal battle. While Airtel threatened to "take appropriate recourse to protect its rights, Vodafone has gone a step ahead to petition against the DoT directive with TDSAT. It is learnt that the hearing will take place at noon on Saturday.

The DoT's tough stance comes despite the aggressive position taken by Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti Airtel, Vittorio Colao of Vodafone and Kumar Mangalam Birla of Idea, along with Anil Ambani of RCOM and Ishaat Hussain of the Tatas in asking the PM to refund their 3G bid deposits with interest if it intended to revoke permission for 3G ICR between operators, placing Rs 67,719 crore of 3G spectrum auction revenues at stake. In a detailed statement, Bharti Airtel said the move violated the principles of natural justice apart from being illegal, expressing shock "at the arbitrary decision taken by the DoT, despite DoT having clarified on the matter prior to the 3G spectrum auction in 2010".

GSM operators say that prior to the 3G spectrum auction they had asked if customers of UASL licences who do not hold 3G spectrum be allowed to roam on the 3G networks of other UASLs in the same licenced area. "The DoT clarified that "the roaming policy is applicable to the licences and not to specific spectrum bands. Hence, roaming will be permitted. We fail to understand how the DoT can recant from its own clarification and take this drastic decision affecting millions of mobile subscribers seeking access to broadband services in India," Airtel said.

Vodafone agreed that the DoT's decision was completely unreasonable, retrograde and would hurt millions of its customers. "As stated earlier, the 3G roaming agreements that Vodafone has entered into with other operators are in complete compliance with all government rules and regulations and this issue was specifically clarified by DoT before the 3G auction was held. Based on this clarification, we went into the auction in good faith. Now, to completely reverse the stand, is totally irrational." Idea said: "It is indeed very unfortunate that the terms on which auctions were conducted are not being implemented with integrity and sincerity. It is not only a breach of trust, but also an act that is expected to adversely impact over half the base of mobile users in India and negatively impact investor sentiment."