Extend the scope of the telecom bill

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s launch of 5G services in the country during the Indian Mobile Congress 2022 on October 1, it is hoped that the remarkable progress made by the telecom industry, especially in mobile services, will continue. will continue.

It is indeed timely that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has published the Indian Telecommunications Bill 2022, replacing the very old Indian Telegraph Act of 1885. However, although technology has evolved exponentially over the decade, the bill unfortunately lacks a vision for the future.

The Positive Side

First, a look at the positive aspects of the bill. It is clearly stated that any revisions to telecommunications policies, including licensing and payment terms, will have no retroactive effect. This gives businesses certainty.

Second, it is necessary for verifiable caller ID to be displayed at the receiver to limit ubiquitous unsolicited commercial calls.

Third, the bill recognizes the optimal use of radio spectrum for commercial mobile services and paves the way for the trading, sharing, leasing and reallocation of spectrum in a technology independent manner.

Fourth, opening up the possibility of allocating radio spectrum other than by using auctions.

This provides the government with the ability to allocate spectrum using other methodologies such as administrative or beauty parade, as appropriate, for specific use cases.

Fifth, there is the recognition of telecommunications facility providers and the associated activation of the right of way (RoW) for the provision of passive infrastructure.

The warnings

However, the bill has a number of caveats. Although policymakers have attempted to redefine telecommunications services to include all forms of digital communication, including Over The Top (OTT) communication and broadcasting services, the way this sector is addressed in the bill sorely lacking in depth and vision.

In fact, regulators around the world are at an impasse over whether OTT services should be regulated in the same way as mobile network operators (MNOs). The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper in 2020. However, the bill does not bring clarity. There is still debate on whether OTT services complement or replace services such as voice telephony and short message service offered by MNOs. MNOs are licensed and are often subject to strict regulation due to their exclusive access to radio spectrum, their right of way for the laying of their infrastructure such as fiber optics and towers, and access to the universal service to provide connectivity to unprofitable rural areas of the country. Needless to say, they also pay spectrum and license fees for the same.

On the other hand, OTTs do not have the same kind of exclusive privileges and access and therefore have not been regulated until now. However, there is a need for light regulation of OTTs due to their power to capture and use consumers’ personal information (PI) and to display a virtual monopoly in “defined markets” due to the effects network.

However, the type of regulation of OTTs should be different from that of MNOs which cover areas such as data and privacy protection, consumer protection, content moderation to name a few.

By regulating OTTs on the same basis as MNOs with similar terms and conditions, including heavy licensing, this is a serious problem. The bill does not take these differences into account.

The role of TRAI

Secondly, there is the complete absence of any change in the role of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), except for cosmetic changes to the TRAI Act of 1997. The TRAI has done a remarkable job as as regulator of this dynamic and technologically advanced sector for the past 25 years. The government must provide the necessary autonomy, both financially and administratively.

The regulator plays a very important role in shaping the digital communication landscape of the country. The only additional power that has been granted to the TRAI is the verification of predatory pricing in telecommunications, which is effectively an antitrust action and should be the responsibility of the Competition Commission of India (CSIC) and not the TRAI.

Third, there is the Center’s general power to regulate all aspects of telecommunications in the interest of national security, without appropriate safeguards, including the designation of authorities who can issue such orders. This is likely to send jitters to service providers as well as consumers, so there is a need to clearly outline precautionary measures and processes to reduce potential abuse.

Fourth, a granular level of detail regarding the sanctions and penalties provided for in the bill for deviant conduct by service providers should be prescribed in subsequent regulations and rules.

Finally, telecommunications has transformed into digital communications and the ecosystem includes not only MNOs but also OTT companies, cloud service providers, network equipment manufacturers, content and application providers where the part of the telecommunications connectivity has been reduced to less than 10% of the rate.

However, the bill only paid lip service to the rapidly changing ecosystem. The scope of the bill should be broadened to take into account the new and emerging digital communications sector; the role of the sector regulator also needs to be strengthened for proper coordination with other relevant regulators including the soon to be enacted Data Protection Authority, CCI and Consumer Protection Authority.

The writer is a professor at IIIT Bangalore

Comments are closed.