Airtel’s bid to get users of Tata Tele faces hurdle

Airtel’s bid to acquire 40 million customers of loss-making Tata Tele through a merger may hit a regulatory hurdle. Telecom regulator Trai is looking to raise objections to Airtel automatically moving Tata Tele’s customers into its fold.

Airtel said on Wednesday that it has started ‘transition’ of customers of Tata Tele within its fold under an intra-circle roaming (ICR) arrangement.
But, Trai said prescribed procedure is being violated through a direct-transfer route. “Customers are not captive property of any company. They cannot be automatically shifted,” a top official with Trai told TOI when asked about the move by Airtel.

The official, who requested anonymity, said “customers have a right to choose an operator of their choice” in case his/her existing company decides to merge/close down or sell its operations. This can be exercised through the mobile-number portability route. The issue could be similar to when Airtel was trying to acquire 3 million customers of Loop Telecom in Mumbai in 2014. The transition had faced Trai’s objection (though the deal had failed to materialise).

When contacted for a comment, a spokesperson for Airtel said, “This is a standard ICR arrangement under which Tata Teleservices customers get access to the Airtel network. They continue to be Tata Teleservices customers enjoying the services being provided by Tata Teleservices. In no way does it curtail the choice of customers as they are free to shift to any network/operator they want to.”

However, Airtel did not explain why “existing SIMs” of Tata Tele were automatically shifted to Airtel and also on how many customers have already been transferred. There was no response from Tata Tele.

Apart from eyeing telecom customers, Airtel is looking to gain access to around 180 MHz of Tata’s mobile spectrum spread across 850 MHz, 1800 MHz, and 2100 MHz bands. Airtel and Tata Teleservices had recently announced an agreement to merge the Consumer Mobile Businesses of Tata Teleservices and Tata Teleservices Maharashtra into Airtel.

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