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December 20, 2023
The Indian government introduced the Telecommunications Bill 2023 earlier this week. It seeks to replace and consolidate several existing laws, including the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933 and the Telegraph Wire Act of 1950.
The proposed Telecommunications Bill 2023 will bring sweeping changes to the industry. It was introduced as a money bill, which means that it will not be tabled in the Rajya Sabha – the upper house of the Indian parliament. It will need to be passed by the lower house (Lok Sabha) before it becomes a law.
Here are the major points introduced in the bill:
The question of OTTs
One of the most contentious points raised in the previous version of the Telecom Bill was the inclusion of over-the-top (OTT) services in "telecommunication services." This meant that OTTs would be governed by the same set of regulations as communications service providers. The telcos argued that OTTs offer similar services as them, such as voice and data.
According to media reports, OTTs are not included in the category of telecommunication services in the revised version of the bill. That would mean they continue to be governed by the IT Act, which comes under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY).
"The time-tested distinction between telecom spectrum controlling entities (which are regulated) and spectrum using companies should be maintained as it has been the basis that has allowed innovation and deeper penetration of the Internet in India," says a note issued by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).
Resolving satellite spectrum uncertainty
The bill also specifies that spectrum for satellite-based broadband services – which Deloitte sees becoming a $1.9 billion market by 2030 – will be licensed, not auctioned. This is a major win for companies in the space including Elon Musk's Starlink, Eutelsat OneWeb and Amazon's Project Kuiper. Reliance Jio was, meanwhile, the only player demanding a spectrum auction.
"By allocating the spectrum by administrative method for satcom, India could align itself with international standards, promote global cooperation and also help drive innovation, create opportunities for startups, and strengthen the country's position in the global satellite market. This would also spur growth in all downstream sectors of space providing impetus to the space economy in India," says Lt. Gen. AK Bhatt (Retd.), Director General, Indian Space Association (ISpA).
Spectrum for TV broadcasting, direct-to-home television, national long-distance calls and in-flight connectivity will also be allocated administratively and not through auctions. It is not yet clear what methodology will be used.
More power to the government
One of the bill's most controversial aspects is that it allows the central government to take control of any telecom service in the interest of public safety.
"On the occurrence of any public emergency, including disaster management, or in the interest of public safety, the Central Government or a State Government or any officer specially authorised in this behalf by the Central Government or a State Government, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, by notification- (a) take temporary possession of any telecommunication service or telecommunication network from an authorised entity; or (b) provide for appropriate mechanism to ensure that messages of a user or group of users authorised for response and recovery during public emergency are routed on priority," says the bill.
There is a concern that this could be misused by the government. The Internet Freedom Foundation posted on social media: "We stand against the introduction of the 2023 Telecom Bill in the Parliament which continues the pattern of excessive centralisation & control with the Executive. We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again, this bill needs to go. And be replaced with a rights-centric version."
Other significant developments
The Telecommunications Bill 2023 also proposes renaming the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), set up to ensure universal access to communication services, to "Digital Bharat Nidhi."
While a significant limitation of TRAI's powers was discussed in the previous version, it has been dropped from the final bill. However, it now allows non-government officials to be eligible for the chairmanship of TRAI if they have over 25 years of experience.
India has come under a lot of criticism for a high number of Internet shutdowns. To address this, the bill says that Internet shutdowns can be implemented only when they are approved by the central government.
"The Bill also lays down that Internet shutdowns can be authorized only by the Central Government, which is objective and looks at ensuring continued, uninterrupted and seamless telecom connectivity to all," says Lt. Gen. Dr SP Kochhar, Director General, COAI.
Other provisions of the bill also include a requirement to collect biometric identification before issuing a new SIM card. Companies would also need to secure consent before sending promotional messages to users.
Read more about:Asia
With more than a decade of experience, Gagandeep Kaur Sodhi has worked for the most prominent Indian communications industry publications including Dataquest, Business Standard, The Times of India, and Voice&Data, as well as for Light Reading. Delhi-based Kaur, who has knowledge of and covers a broad range of telecom industry developments, regularly interacts with the senior management of companies in India's telecom sector and has been directly responsible for delegate and speaker acquisition for prominent events such as Mobile Broadband Summit, 4G World India, and Next Generation Packet Transport Network.
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