Indian utilities caught up in telecoms dues dispute

Indian operators start to pay as utilities caught up in telecoms dues dispute

18 February 2020 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Tata Teleservices have paid some of the $14 billion they owe the Indian government in fees, but not all.

But other companies with telecoms networks, from oil to chemicals, are being caught up in the decision by the government’s Department of Telecoms (DoT) that they owe it money. A gas company is facing an unexpected bill of $25 million.

According to this morning’s reports, Bharti Airtel paid 28% – 100 billion rupees ($1.4 billion) of the 356 billion rupees ($4.9 billion) it owed.

Tata Teleservices, which is being taken over by Airtel, paid $307 million, 16% of the claimed $1.9 billion, and said that was all it owed, possibly leading to a dispute with the DoT.

However, financially troubled Vodafone Idea paid only 4.7% of the 530 billion rupees ($7.4 billion) the DoT is claiming – a cheque for just $349 million – but said it would pay $139 billion more by the end of the week.

They owe the money to the DoT because the government changed the definition of adjusted gross revenue (AGR), on which dues are calculated, leaving operators to face the extra payments in licence fees, spectrum usage charges, penalties and interest. The Supreme Court in India upheld the DoT’s definition.

But in a new twist, Bloomberg Quint has pointed out that non-telecoms companies in India with a licence to provide bandwidth or to be an internet service provider are covered by the same AGR ruling.

That even includes oil, power and other industries that have their own networks to manage their operations.

Bloomberg Quint cites the examples of Oil India, a state-owned company, GAIL India, a gas company, PowerGrid, an electric power company, and Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilizers & Chemicals.

Oil India faces a bill of 485 million rupees ($6.8 million) for the unused capacity it had leased to third parties, says Bloomberg Quint. Oil India will take the case to the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT).

GAIL India owes even more, 1.83 billion rupees ($25.6 million), says Bloomberg Quint. PowerGrid and Gujarat Narmada Valley owe smaller sums, but still in the millions.

Oil India’s chairman and managing director, Sushil Chandra Mishra confirmed to the agency that the company was taking the issue to the disputes tribunal. “We will be approaching TDSAT within a week’s time,” it quotes him as saying.

Oil India holds a national long-distance service licence, mainly to monitor and operate its pipelines, and leases capacity to telecoms companies. PowerGrid also holds a long-distance licence but also has an ISP licence. Gujarat Narmada Valley is an ISP but also operates a network of small satellite dishes.