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Was the spectrum auction on March 8 illegal?

  • Published at 11:59 pm March 14th, 2021
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Defunct landline operator World Tel believes so

The auction on March 8 that had Grameenphone, Robi and Banglalink pay through the nose for much-needed airwave has an interesting back story: the 7.4MHz spectrum on the premium 1,800 band once belonged to World Tel Bangladesh, now defunct landline operator.

The company, which is the country’s first landline operator, claims the auction is illegal all along, as per the legal notice and a notice of arbitration it sent on March 4 to the chairman of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.

The notice mentioned that World Tel would take the matter to an international court if the BTRC did not refrain from putting the spectrum up for auction.

Dhaka Tribune has a copy of the notice.

But World Tel, according to the BTRC, does not have much of a case.

Spectrum like oil, gas and so on are a natural resource and is meant to be utilised and not left idle.  

World Tel had left the spectrum, which is on the most expensive commercial spectrum band, sitting idle, according to a BTRC official familiar with the matter. 

“Allocation of spectrum for an operator does not mean that it owns the spectrum -- it is given for 15 years. And World Tel got the spectrum even before the BTRC was formed,” he said on condition of anonymity to speak candidly on the issue.

The BTRC was founded on January 31, 2002.

And as per terms, the government can take back the spectrum from the operator if there are allegations of misconduct.

The BTRC took away the spectrum that was allocated to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) in May 2017 because of alleged legal violations. 

Earlier in March 2010, the BTRC switched off the services of five PSTN operators including World Tel, alleging they were involved in illegal international call termination through voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and later decided to cancel the licences of all five and switch off their services.

The other PSTN operators are Ranks Tel, Dhaka Phone, National Telecom and Peoples Tel.

Even before switching off its service, the regulator had issued several notices against World Tel for illegal call termination, which the company rejected every time. 

National Telecom and World Tel had filed two separate suits on May 22, 2013, claiming Tk 960 crore and Tk 553.2 crore in compensation respectively from the regulator and the telecom ministry.

Dhaka Phone also filed a Tk 4,018.86 crore compensation suit mentioning that the shutdown of the company was unlawful.

All the cases are still pending.

Then in 2015, the BTRC again moved to cancel World Tel’s licence, which it had awarded the operator back in 1994. 

Between 2009 and 2016, World Tel had also allegedly not submitted any bank guarantee, which is a requisite, according to the BTRC.

Then in 2016, the telecom regulator took back World Tel’s spectrum.

“The operator gave wrong information to the High Court regarding compensation and sent us the same legal notice several times,” said Tareq Hassan Siddiqui, Director of BTRC Legal and Licencing Division. 

“We replied, but how many times will we reply to the same notice?” 

World Tel had tried to revive the case several times, but that door is firmly shut, according to Siddiqui.

“They are trying to stop our auction as well as our spectrum-related activities in the country. The court told us to carry out criminal procedures against World Tel,” he said.

According to a High Court order, it did not find “any substance in the application”; rather, it was “a frivolous application with false statements”.

BTRC’s legal division is currently dealing with the legal notice and will address this either at court or directly; it will be decided later, according to Siddiqui.

Meanwhile, an industry insider told Dhaka Tribune that World Tel had originally wanted to sell this unused spectrum to a private mobile company. But when the BTRC decided to sell the spectrum, the operator sent a legal notice to the regulator, he added.

The issue had ended per the instruction of the High Court, said BTRC Chairman Shyam Sunder Shikder. 

But Nayeem Mehtab Chowdhury, chief executive officer of World Tel, disagrees with the regulator’s stance on the issue. 

“We have always been positive and reasonable. Our legal recourse is far from over. Our international investors have been seeking damages in excess of about $2.3 billion. But to date, we have received no response from BTRC to these legal notices,” he said.

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