New Delhi: The Supreme Court today asked the government to refrain from taking any "coercive steps" against Bharti Airtel, accused of illegally providing intra-circle roaming facilities in seven circles where it did not have the licences for the 3G spectrum.
The apex court also asked the parties to maintain status quo on the issue till the matter is heard on April 11.
"Let the matter be listed on April 11. Till then, the parties are directed to maintain status quo. In the meantime, Department of Telecom (DoT) will not take any coercive steps," a bench comprising Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Vikramajit Sen said.
The apex court was hearing the petition filed by Bharti Airtel challenging the Delhi High Court's order giving its nod to the Centre's decision holding the 3G roaming pact of the telecom major as illegal.
The high court's division bench passed the order on a plea by Reliance Communications Ltd challenging the single judge's order saying it has been incurring huge losses for the 3G on a daily basis and Bharti has been using it free of cost.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had on March 15 issued a notification restraining Bharti from providing 3G intra-circle roaming facilities in seven circles where it did not have the spectrum and also levied a penalty of Rs 350 crore (Rs 50 crore per circle) for allegedly violating the licence terms and conditions.
The telecom major has challenged the decision of the division bench of the high court which had set aside its single judge's March 18 order staying the DoT notification.
Senior advocate Abhishekh Singhvi, appearing for Airtel, said the division bench of the high court was wrong in entertaining the plea of Reliance as it was not a party before the single judge.
Singhvi questioned the locus standi of Reliance in the matter and also said the high court's decision will affect a large number of consumers who have Airtel's service.
Vodafone's counsel and senior advocate Gopal Subramanian supported Airtel saying both the telecom companies have roaming pact and others should not have any objection.
However, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Reliance Communication, said what Airtel has been doing for two years was completely illegal as it did not have licence for 3G in seven circles, including Kolkata where it was selling the 'SIM' cards for 3G mobile connections.
The high court had allowed Reliance's plea to be impleaded as a party in the case filed by Bharti before the single judge.
Reliance had in its plea said "declare and hold 3G intra-circle roaming agreements entered into between Bharti and other service providers as illegal and in violation of Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution."
"It (Reliance) has paid thousands of crores for the 3G spectrum and Bharti is using it for free in as many as seven circles, therefore, disrupting the level-playing field. If this is allowed, then there is no requirement for any licensee to participate and purchase 3G spectrum in auction. This defeats the purpose of auction," the plea also said.
Reliance said it was not made a party by Bharti in its plea before the single judge despite the fact that Reliance is directly affected by the relief sought by it.