Explained: Draft Telecom Bill And The Changes It Aims To Bring

by Amit Mishra - Sep 24, 2022 11:58 AM +05:30 IST
Explained: Draft Telecom Bill And The Changes It Aims To Bring OTT communication services - WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram.
Snapshot
  • The proposed Bill aims to bring sweeping changes to how the telecom sector is governed.

    A major change is the inclusion of OTT communication services (WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram) in the definition of telecommunication services.

The Ministry of Communications has put the draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022 in public domain for suggestions and feedback. 

The proposed Bill aims to bring sweeping changes to how the telecom sector is governed.

The existing regulatory framework for the telecommunication sector is based to a large extent on Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act, which grants the central government the exclusive privilege to establish, maintain and work telegraphs. It further provides that the central government may grant a license on such conditions as it thinks fit to establish, maintain and work telegraphs.

Similarly, Section 5 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act provides for licenses to possess wireless telegraphy apparatus.

The draft Bill aims to replace the three separate acts that govern the telecommunications sector - 

  • the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, 

  • the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 and 

  • the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950.

Why the need to bring a new bill?

With 117 crore subscribers, India is the world’s second-largest telecommunication ecosystem. The telecommunication sector employs more than 4 million people and contributes about 8 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Emergence of new technologies such as 5G, Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, M2M Communications, etc., among others, offer many opportunities to transform the lives of millions of Indians.

A new law on telecommunication is, therefore, needed to establish an enabling future-ready framework for the development of telecommunication sector and deployment of new technologies.

What are some of the key amendments to existing telecom laws?

A major change is the inclusion of new-age over-the-top (OTT) communication services like WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram in the definition of telecommunication services.

The inclusion of OTT under telecom services, resolves the long-standing grievance of telecom service providers (TSPs). TSPs have been seeking a level playing field with OTT apps over services such as voice calls, messages, etc. where operators had to incur high costs of licences and spectrum, while OTT players used their infrastructure to offer free services.

At present, while telecom companies need a license to offer services, OTT platforms do not. Bringing OTTs under the ambit of telecom services means that OTT would require a license to offer services.

The draft bill, however, has a clause that allows exemptions from the requirement of license and registration in the public interest.

What are the key changes to spectrum management?

At present, spectrum assignment in India is done through a combination of government policies and judicial decisions. 

The Bill recognises the globally established principle of exclusive privilege of the central government in relation to spectrum.

While the Bill provides for assignment of spectrum primarily through auction, for certain specified functions relating to government and public interest like defence, transportation, research, etc., the Bill provides an enabling framework for assignment of spectrum through administrative process.

What are the key features of the draft bill?

  • Any information transmitted and received over telecommunication services could be intercepted by an authorised official of the central/state government in the interest of the sovereignty, integrity or security of India, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, or preventing incitement to an offence.

  • An enabling framework for a “Regulatory Sandbox” to facilitate innovation and technological development in telecommunication.

  • The draft Bill enables a legal framework for preventing harassment of users from unsolicited calls and messages and states that “the identity of a person sending a message using telecommunication services shall be available to the user receiving such message, in such form as may be prescribed”.

  • Empowers the central government to prescribe standards to ensure the quality and reliability of telecommunication.

What about Right of Way?

Right of Way (RoW) gives a guideline to Telecom companies to lay up its infrastructure elements like - towers, optical fibre cables on a designated route.

The existing regulatory framework, based on Right of Way Rules, 2016, has had a limited impact in addressing bottlenecks in rapid expansion of telecommunication infrastructure.

The Bill provides obtaining RoW on public property in a time-bound manner and recognises the importance of negotiation and mutual agreement with regard to RoW over private property.

Only in exceptional circumstances, where a private party does not provide the RoW requested, the central government may step in to acquire the RoW in public interest.

The Bill also requires any grant of RoW, whether on public or private property, to be non-discriminatory and non-exclusive.

What are the key regulatory changes introduced in the draft?

To ensure a smooth transition to the new framework and avoid any possible disruption, the Bill provides for continuity of actions taken under the repealed laws. This means existing licenses, registrations and spectrum would continue.

The Bill also looks to amend the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act (TRAI Act) to dilute the sectoral watchdog’s function of being a recommendatory body.

The proposed Bill does away with the provision wherein the government had to take recommendations from the TRAI before issuing licenses.

It also removes the existing prohibition on appointing government officials as chairpersons below the secretary rank and additional secretary in the authority.

Also Read: In Live-streaming Proceedings Of Constitutional Bench Next Week, Supreme Court Is Following Footsteps Of Six High Courts

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