recalls some of the most crucial events that helped shaped the sector over the past 20 years. These events ushered in reforms, created key institutions, paved the way for private participation, presented new business opportunities as well as challenges, and changed the course of the sector to bring it to where it is today. A look at the 20 most noteworthy events, developments, policies and programmes of the past two decades…

Corporatisation of BSNL (2000)

Based on the reference made in NTP, 1999, the services arm of DoT was hived off and corporatised as Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) in October 2000. The telecom PSU has been providing telecom services across the country except Delhi and Mumbai. It is the only operator to have made significant inroads into the rural and remote areas.

Privatisation of the NLD and ILD segments (2000, 2002)

With the aim of driving private investments and competition in the national long distance (NLD) market, the government decided to open-up the segment to the private sector. The idea was to increase long distance bandwidth capacity and provide a choice to consumers. Later, in 2002, the government allowed the entry of private players in the international long distance (ILD) market as well.

Establishment of the USO Fund (2002)

The Universal Service Obligation [USO] Fund was established in 2002 with the objective of providing telecom access to people in rural and remote areas at reasonable prices. The fund is maintained through operators’ contribution by way of a universal service levy, fixed at 5 per cent of the adjusted gross revenue (AGR).

Introduction of the CPP regime (2003)

The calling party pays (CPP) regime was introduced under the IUC regulation in January 2003. This regime was perhaps the single biggest driver of telecom growth in the country. Under the regime, incoming mobile-to-mobile and fixed line-to-mobile calls were made free of charge. Later, in 2003, the TRAI superseded this regulation with a new one, wherein identical termination charges were levied for all types of calls.

Launch of Project MOST (2006)

To encourage tower sharing among operators and bring down costs, the ministries of urban affairs and communications initiated Project Mobile Operator Shared Tower (MOST) and introduced a master service agreement to facilitate sharing.

Auction of 3G and BWA spectrum (2010)

The process of auctioning 3G and broadband wireless access (BWA) spectrum was kicked off in April 2010 and concluded in late May, after 34 days and 183 rounds of aggressive bidding across 22 service areas. The big rush for 3G spectrum had operators bidding in excess of Rs 160 billion for a pan-Indian licence. The high price surpassed all expectations, including those of the government, which raked in Rs 677.1 billion from the sale. In the end, seven of the nine operators won 3G spectrum.

Launch of MNP (2011)

Mobile number portability (MNP), which allows users to switch operators without having to change their mobile number, was launched on a pan-Indian basis on January 20, 2011. While this made it easy for consumers to move between operators, it made the market more competitive as operators rushed to take measures to retain customers and control churn.

Roll-out of NOFN (2011)

The National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project was launched in October 2011 with the aim of providing broadband connectivity to villages. It was renamed BharatNet in 2015 and its scope expanded to connect 250,000 gram panchayats with fibre broadband connectivity. The project is being implemented by Bharat Broadband Network Limited and funded by the USO Fund.

Cancellation of 2G licences (2012)

In February 2012, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment on the 2G case, cancelling 122 telecom licences that were controversially issued in 2008. The verdict impacted new and incumbent players alike. Among the new players, Uninor, Sistema Shyam TeleServices Limited, S Tel, Etisalat Videocon Telecommunications and Loop Telecom collectively lost 106 licences, while Idea Cellular and Tata Teleservices Limited lost 13 and 3 licences respectively.

Introduction of unified licence guidelines (2013)

In late 2013, DoT issued unified licence guidelines to simplify the licensing regime, in sync with the objectives of the NTP 2012. The guidelines allowed for voluntary migration of telcos to the new licensing regime. Service providers with BWA spectrum were allowed to offer voice telephony services through a unified licence after paying Rs 16.58 billion.

Launch of Digital India (2015)

The launch of the Digital India programme in July 2015 was a key step forward in the effort to transform the country into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. Over the past four years, the government has undertaken several initiatives in the areas of e-governance, skill building and digital infrastructure creation in order to raise the level of digitalisation. Post the launch of the programme, broadband access has been expanded to over 625 million subscribers.

Notification of M&A and spectrum trading/ sharing guidelines (2014, 2015)

The government finalised the telecom merger and acquisition (M&A) norms in September 2014. Under these norms, a telco looking to merge with or acquire a rival operator would have to ensure that the combined share of the merged entity is below 50 per cent, in terms of both subscriber base and AGR, in a particular circle. Following this, in September 2015, the cabinet approved TRAI’s spectrum sharing and trading guidelines, under which the entire spectrum holding of operators was made eligible for spectrum sharing, provided both licensees had airwaves in the same band. Similarly, spectrum trading was permitted in all frequency bands.

Holding of the biggest spectrum auction ever (2015)

In early 2015, DoT conducted its biggest ever spectrum auction, garnering Rs 1.1 trillion. While the auction helped resolve the long-standing spectrum crunch issue, the large payouts on account of exorbitant spectrum prices took a toll on operator balance sheets.

Entry of MVNOs allowed (2016)

In March 2016, the Telecom Commission allowed mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) to enter the market. The decision not only enabled the entry of new players into the market, but it also opened up a potential revenue stream for the incumbent operators, as they could now lease their existing assets to MVNOs.

Reliance Jio’s disruption of the market (2016)

Reliance Jio entered the Indian telecom industry with an aggressive pricing strategy and garnered a large subscriber base in absolutely no time, eating into the market shares of the incumbents and eventually taking the top spot in the market. Its entry was followed by a major market consolidation, with a series of exits by smaller players that were unable to compete with Jio’s near-zero tariffs, and mergers among players to sustain operations.

Release of RoW Rules (2016)

A major development in the infrastructure space during 2016 was the release of the Right of Way [RoW] Rules to facilitate the installation of mobile towers and the laying of OFC. The rules, which came into effect on November 15, 2016, created a framework for streamlining approvals, establishing a single-window clearance mechanism, allowing online filing of applications and rationalising the fee structures.

Sharp reduction in IUC (2017)

In a major blow to the industry, TRAI decided to reduce the IUC by a hefty 57 per cent, to Re 0.06 per minute from the previous Re 0.14 per minute. It also proposed eliminating the IUC altogether by January 2020, moving to a bill-and-keep  regime. However, this move has since been severely criticised by several telecom operators. As a result, TRAI has recently deferred the implementation of the zero-IUC regime by a year until January 2021, in respect of wireless-to-wireless domestic call termination charges.

Launch of NDCP to usher in the next phase of growth (2018)

The National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018 was launched to support the expansion of next-generation technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, internet of things, cloud and big data. This landmark policy seeks to give a larger digital identity to the telecom sector. It also aims to attract $100 billion in investments in the sector, generate 4 million jobs, increase the sector’s contribution to GDP to 8 per cent by 2022 from 6 per cent in 2017, and ensure universal broadband access.

Notification of FMC Rules (2018)

In December 2018, the government notified the Flight and Maritime Connectivity (FMC) Rules, 2018, allowing Indian and foreign airlines and shipping companies operating in the country to provide in-flight and maritime voice (FMC) and data services in partnership with a licensed Indian telecom operator. In 2019, DoT granted FMC licences to Hughes Communications India Limited, BSNL, Indo Teleports Limited (a Bharti Airtel subsidiary), and Tatanet Services Limited (a wholly owned subsidiary of Nelco Limited).

Passing of AGR verdict (2019)

In October 2019, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled in favour of the government on the AGR issue, upholding the definition of AGR as suggested by DoT. The ruling, which mandated service providers to shell out Rs 920 billion in AGR dues, delivered a major blow to the incumbents. The telcos have requested the Supreme Court to reconsider the payment schedule or consider a modification of the same. The apex court is yet to hear the pleas submitted by the telcos.