India proposes far-reaching changes in telecom regulations
India's Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has come up with the draft Telecom Bill 2022, which proposes to change the equation between government and the telecom industry.
The key idea is that it consolidates three acts (the Indian Telegraph Act 1885, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act 1933 and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Protection) Act 1950) into one.
It recently circulated the first draft for public/stakeholders' comments. The bill primarily focuses on the ease of doing business, ensuring proper infrastructure, better use of 'valuable' spectrum and rules and regulations for litigation.
Below are some of the key amendments:
OTT players to come under a licensing regime
One of the most contentious issues in the industry is that service providers have been demanding the inclusion of "over-the-top" (OTT) players in the licensing regime.
If the proposed bill becomes law, services like Whatsapp, Zoom and Google Duo may soon require a license to operate in India as their calling and messaging services compete with the services offered by telcos.
Significantly, it proposes to dilute the telecom regulator's role as a recommendatory body.
This would do away with the requirement for the telecom department to seek views from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) before issuing a new license to a service provider.
Currently, the DoT has to refer recommendations back to TRAI for reconsideration.
The proposed legislation does away with this provision, severely limiting TRAI's powers.
Telecom infra push
The proposals seek to ease the licensing processes, getting authorization or registration for the use of telecom infrastructure, and so on.
The draft says that to provide infrastructure, an entity will have to obtain only a registration, not a license.
It seeks to remove obstacles to building networks by providing an enabling framework that facilitates RoW (Right of Way) issues.
Any public entity that receives an RoW application from a facility provider is asked to grant permission in an expeditious manner. Rejection of an application, the bill says, can only be for limited substantive grounds.
Even with private property, a service provider can submit an RoW application. However, government intervention will be necessary if the owner rejects the application.
Regarding insolvency, restructuring
One of the most significant proposals centers on the clarification of the issue of ownership of airwaves when a service provider becomes bankrupt.
If a service provider goes through bankruptcy or insolvency, the assigned spectrum or airwaves will revert to the control of the government.
They can continue to provide telecom services as long as there is no default on the payment of dues, and all terms and conditions are complied with.
The bill also seeks to simplify the framework for mergers, acquisitions and other forms of restructuring.
Once this takes place, service providers must inform the licensing authority, the DoT. The new entity has all the terms and conditions applicable to a licensee or registered entity.
Ensuring user protection
The draft bill has a provision related to the identity of the caller. The Telecom Department plans to start a Truecaller-like service, where the user knows who is calling, to prevent cyber fraud.
A legal framework has also been proposed to prevent the harassment of users by unsolicited calls and messages.
Other major changes include the expansion of the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), currently used to provide telecom services to rural areas at affordable prices. The fund would be renamed the Telecom Development Fund, and also be used for research and skills development.
The draft is controversial. As stakeholders and the public have until 20 October 2022 to comment, the final bill is likely to be a much toned-down version.
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— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading