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COAI's Matthews must apologise for 'backdoor entry' remark: Jio

29 September 2016

With no cooling of the war between Reliance Jio Infocomm and established or 'incumbent' telecom operators, Jio has accused Cellular Operators Association of India director general Rajan Mathews of making defamatory remarks ''bordering on contempt'' of a Supreme Court order, after Mathews suggested that Jio had made a ''backdoor entry'' into the telecom sector.

Jio in a strongly-worded statement issued late Wednesday evening said it had ''put Mathews on notice'' and had demanded an apology from him for making surreptitious and defamatory remarks in the media on 25 September.

The Mukesh Ambani-run 4G entrant said it had also sent a copy of the notice to COAI and urged it to take appropriate action against Mathews, failing which it would pursue ''legal recourse with full vigour'' against the association that mainly represents the big 3 of Indian telecoms Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular, although Reliance Infocomm is also a member.

Last Sunday, Mathews had accused Jio of making a backdoor entry into the telecoms sector, countering the latter's allegations that COAI was biased in favour of Airtel, Vodafone and Idea and required a change in its functioning.

The COAI director general had said Jio was never an applicant for a UASL or UL licence but had bought a broadband wireless access (permit) through a front entity, and then had it converted into a full-blown UASL licence despite strong objection from certain quarters including the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

The Unified Access Service Licence, or UASL, has since been replaced by the UL, or Unified Licence.

Jio said Mathews is fully aware that his allegations were part of a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the apex court two years ago, which had been ''duly adjudicated upon and rejected'' by the Supreme Court.

Mathews, however, appeared in no mood to apologise. He said the COAI categorically dismisses the Mukesh Ambani-run telco's allegations, which are ''without merit, bald, motivated,'' and intended to bring disrepute to the association.

The COAI, he said, is disappointed that Jio despite being a member had taken internal association matters that could have been settled within, into a public forum.

He further asserted that COAI and its director general had always acted in full compliance with the constitution and bylaws of the association and always upheld and complied with the regulations and rules of the land.

In a letter dated 23 September to COAI, Jio had demanded a comprehensive overhaul of COAI's rules, regulations and processes, which it alleged had been framed to favour the three incumbent dominant operators (IDOs) who collectively command 68 per cent of the total votes'' in the association's executive council by virtue of revenue and market position.

Jio had suggested that a committee comprising three retired Supreme Court judges be set up to ensure COAI's governance code and processes were in line with democratic principles of reasonableness, fairness, accountability and transparency.

In a recent interview to The Economic Times, Ambani had called COAI's structure flawed and criticised its functioning, pledging to democratise it. Since voting rights correspond to the revenue of operators, COAI's views represent only those of dominant carriers, and Jio, with no revenue doesn't have a say, he had said.

Mathews had reportedly called Ambani's remarks absolutely incorrect and misleading, and asserted that the COAI was a fully democratic association that took into account the views of all its member operators.

Bharti Group chairman Sunil Mittal had also dismissed Ambani's accusations in an interview to ET. He had said ''so much importance'' should not be given ''to a process followed in COAI'', so long as it was factual and honest. He had added that it was not as though Airtel, Vodafone and Idea were a cosy club, as they competed with each other.

Nevertheless, Jio stuck to its position, reiterating that all forums within the COAI are controlled by IDOs owing to their disproportionate voting rights.

To drive home its point, it said it was common knowledge that dual technology operators Tata Teleservices and Reliance Communications had left COAI in the past ''because of such biases''.

It further said Jio could not be restrained from raising its fair concerns, especially when IDOs were ''colluding to use COAI's regulations against it to promote anti-competitive activities''.

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