COAI raises 2G service concerns over environmental clearance, Airtel says non-issue

KOLKATA: Bharti Airtel has dismissed the concerns raised by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) that delays in getting environment ministry clearance for the import of refurbished telecom equipment could cause possible disruptions to 2G services.

Sunil Mittal-led Airtel, which is a frontline member of the COAI, said there weren’t any concerns around its 2G operations.

A company spokesman told ET: “There is no issue whatsoever with the running and maintaining of Airtel’s 2G networks that continue to serve millions of customers who are unable to afford 4G smartphones.”

The response follows the COAI’s November 11 letter to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) that 2G and 3G services could be adversely impacted if the environment ministry did not quickly clear the huge backlog of vendor applications for importing critical spares and refurbished equipment needed to maintain legacy mobile technology networks. It urged the DoT to push the environment ministry to expedite approvals to vendor applications pending since July 2020.

Vodafone Idea (Vi) and Airtel are the country’s biggest 2G operators. The more than 300 million 2G users on the two networks are critical to their revenue. Vi also operates 3G networks.

Vi did not respond until press time Friday to ET’s queries on the COAI letter.

Vendors need a no-objection certificate from the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF) before deploying any imported refurbished 2G/3G gear in mobile networks.

COAI’s director-general, SP Kochhar, in his November 11 letter urged the department to “to take up the issue with the MoEF for ensuring time-bound permissions to avoid supply chain disruptions and any adverse impact on telecom services”.

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ET has seen a copy of the letter, which is marked also to MoEF secretary RP Gupta.

The COAI represents Airtel, Vi and Reliance Jio and global original equipment manufacturers such as Nokia and Ericsson.

Reliance Jio, which runs a 4G-only network, had urged the government in July to come out with rules to ensure that 2G services were stopped in the country and all mobile subscribers upgraded to the 4G mobile technology.

But Airtel chief executive Gopal Vittal and Vi managing director Ravinder Takkar had maintained that their 2G operations would not see a shutdown anytime soon as those remained a good, low-cost service option for many customers who preferred feature phones and had no immediate need for smartphones.

A senior industry executive said the “MoEF conducts meetings with OEMs to consider approvals for their refurbished gear import applications, but these haven’t happened since July, and have been delayed after the lockdowns”.

The COAI, in an earlier letter, dated October 23, had urged MoEF secretary Gupta to convene a meeting to take up the pending NOCs, but in absence of any response has now sought the DoT’s intervention.



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