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The Draft Telecom Bill

Context

  • The Union government has released a draft of ‘The Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022,’ in which several significant changes are proposed.
  • These modifications include provisions for waiving dues for financially stressed operators and bringing over-the-top platforms (such as WhatsApp, Zoom, and Netflix) under the purview of telecom services.

Relevance

GS Paper – 2: Government Policies & Interventions, GS Paper – 3: Infrastructure

Mains Question

What are the challenges that the Indian telecom sector is facing? Discuss. Also, suggest what should be done to overcome these obstacles. (150 words)


The 2022 Draft Indian Telecommunications Bill:

  • The Indian telecommunications sector is currently governed by three separate Acts of Parliament:
    • The Indian Telegraph Act of 1885,
    • The Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933
    • Telegraph Wires Act of 1950 (Unlawful Protection)
  • The draft Telecommunications Bill, 2022, seeks to merge these three separate Acts.
  • Goal – To amend existing laws governing the provision, development, expansion, and operation of telecommunications services, telecom networks, and infrastructure, as well as spectrum assignment.

Key amendments proposed in the Draft Bill:

  • OTTs should be included in the definition of telecommunications services.
    • According to the draught law, providers of over-the-top (OTT) telecommunications services (such as WhatsApp and Telegram) will be subject to the same licencing regime as other telecom operators.
    • For several years, telecom service providers (such as Airtel, Vi, and Jio) have sought a level playing field with OTT apps over communication services such as voice calls, messages, and so on.
    • Telecommunications services had to pay high licence and spectrum fees, whereas OTT communication players used their infrastructure to provide free services.
    • As a result, OTT communication services must now obtain a licence and be subject to the same conditions that govern telecom players in India, such as quality of service and security rules, among other things.
  • Spectrum Assignment Framework –
  • The radio frequencies assigned to the mobile industry and other sectors for communication over the airwaves are referred to as spectrum.
    • According to the draught Bill, spectrum should be distributed primarily through auction.
  • Meanwhile, the Bill proposes administrative assignment for specific functions related to government and public interest, such as defence, transportation, and research.
    • The government will also have the authority to terminate spectrum allocations in part or entirely if it determines that assigned spectrum has remained unutilized for insufficient reasons for an extended period of time.
  • Advocate for the rapid expansion of telecom infrastructure –
    • The draught Bill seeks to create a legal “right of way” that is enforceable at both the state and municipal levels.
    • This legal framework is critical to the deployment of 5G services.
    • It establishes a framework in which a public entity that owns the land is required to grant ‘right of way’ permission expeditiously, unless a substantive ground for refusal is provided.
    • The goal is to eliminate bottlenecks in the rapid expansion of telecom infrastructure.
  • Fund for Telecommunications Development –
    • The Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), established by the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, will be known as the “Telecommunication Development Fund.”
    • USOF is the name given to levies collected by the Centre from telecom companies in order to fund and develop communication services in rural and underserved areas
    • Currently, the USOF has an unutilized cash surplus of approximately 60,000 crore.
  • Cyber Fraud Prevention –
    • To combat cyber fraud, the Bill mandates that the identity of the person sending a message via telecom services be made available to the recipient.

Criticisms of the draught Bill include:

  • According to experts, because land is a state subject, the federal government cannot take coercive action against states or municipal corporations to impose ‘right of way’ rules.
  • Additionally, more clarity is needed regarding how the Central Government intends to regulate OTT communication services under this Bill.
  • Analysts are also concerned that the Bill will have a negative impact on the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) consultative role, weakening its position.
    • The draught Bill does not require the government to consult with TRAI on licencing issues.

Conclusion:

  • In general, the Bill emphasises the development of telecom infrastructure while also covering new-age services in order to keep up with the times.

The proposed legal framework aims to be future-proof, to provide certainty about spectrum management, and to reserve the penalty of imprisonment or heavy fines for a small number of critical offences.


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October 2022
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