The 3G service providers finally seem to be making an important headway, in terms of offering pan-India coverage to their subscribers. Since none of them have licenses for all the 22 telecom circles, they could not offer seamless pan-India coverage to their respective 3G subscribers. And that made 3G less attractive a proposition to many users, a reason that could partly be responsible for a somewhat slow uptake of the service so far.

A few of the service providers have joined hands to overcome the limitation. It started off with Idea Cellular, despite not having the 3G spectrum for Delhi, announcing 3G service for its subscribers in the circle, by deciding to ride Vodafone’s network there.

Later, last week, Airtel, Vodafone and Idea reportedly started to come together for providing 3G services in select circles across the country. The trio’s 3G networks potentially cover all but one circle of Orissa. Logically, par-India coverage may be achieved if a smaller operator, STel, joins the consortium, as it has got the license for Orissa.

If formally a consortium is formed, it can have the unique advantage of having double the regular 3G spectrum in the two most prized circles of Delhi and Mumbai, as both Airtel and Vodafone have the licenses for these two circles. It is worth noting that a Delhi license was worth Rs 3,317 crore while a Mumbai license came for Rs 3,247 crore. The third highest priced license was priced a distant Rs 1,580 crore, for Karnataka.

It is equally interesting to note that if the remaining three 3G service providers–Reliance, Tata and Aircel—decide to come together, they too could cover the whole of India among themselves. And it would not be unexpected to have something of that sort happen in the near future.

And of course, the state-run operators BSNL and MTNL also cover all the circles for 3G between the two of them.

Does that bring home the possibility of three consortia offering 3G services, if not three operators? If yes, it could still do 3G some good.

Of course, the service providers will need to iron out the necessary network and revenue sharing arrangements, so that subscribers don’t face coverage and billing related issues at a later stage.

(As published in Deccan Chronicle, July 21, 2011; header changed.)

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