The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has released the draft Indian Telecommunications Bill for public consultation. As per the draft bill, spectrum can be assigned through auction or administrative process in future, depending on the requirements. The bill also has provisions to waive fees, charges, and penalties of any company if required to protect the interest of consumers or ensure fair competition.

In addition, the draft bill has enlarged the definition of telecommunication services, including the over-the-top (OTT) communication services such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram, satellite-based communication services, internet and broadband services, in-flight and maritime connectivity services, etc., under its ambit.

However, according to the draft bill, in the event of payment default and in extraordinary circumstances, including financial stress, consumer interest, maintaining competition in the sector, or reliability and continued supply of telecommunication services, the government can defer the payment of such amounts, convert a part or all of the amounts payable into shares, write-off payable amounts or provide relief from payment. Meanwhile, the draft bill also empowers the government with the right to waive in part or full any fee, including entry fees, license fees, registrations fees or any other fees or charges, interest, additional charges or penalty or damages payable by a licensee. That said, the government can also grant exceptions from the provisions of this Act or rules to a licensee.

Additionally, as per draft bill, on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of the public safety, the central or state governments or any officer specially authorised in this behalf, can direct that any message or class of messages, to or from any person or class of persons shall not be transmitted, or shall be intercepted or detained or disclosed to the officer mentioned in such order. Also, the government has powers to suspend any communication. Meanwhile, in the event of war or national security issues, the government can take over the control and management of, or suspending the operation of, or entrusting any authority of the government to manage any or all of any telecommunication services.

Besides, the bill also mentions that a licensee undergoing insolvency proceedings can continue to operate if it continues to provide the telecommunication service, does not default on the payment of any dues under the license and complies with any additional or modified terms and conditions of license. However, if such licensee is unable to comply with these requirements, then the assigned spectrum will revert to the control of the government.

The draft bill also proposes to rename the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) as Telecommunication Development Fund (TDF). The USO fund is generated from the annual revenue of telecom services providers. The sums of money received towards the TDF will first be credited to the Consolidated Fund of India.The fund will be utilised to boost connectivity services in underserved rural, remote, and urban areas. It will also aid research and development of new telecommunication services, skill development, and support the introduction of new telecommunication services.

Further, the draft bill also notes that the government may permit the sharing, trading, leasing and surrender of spectrum assigned subject to the terms and conditions, including applicable fees or charges, as may be prescribed. In case of breach of license conditions, the DoT can revoke such license, registration, authorisation or assignment and impose a penalty. Meanwhile, the penalty regime has been changed, with varying amounts of penalties depending on the severity of the offence. Any suspension, curtailment, revocation or variation may be reversed if the substantial violation is remedied to the satisfaction of the Central Government. An alternate dispute resolution may be established by the government.

The draft telecommunication bill, once framed into Act, will govern the sector. The bill has been put up for public consultation and stakeholders can send their comments by October 20, 2022.

Draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022 :- https://dot.gov.in/sites/default/files/Draft%20Indian%20Telecommunication%20Bill%2C%202022.pdf

 

Industry reactions:-

Commenting on the release, Lt. Gen. Dr. SP Kochhar, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), said, “In keeping with the recent trend of reformative policy making by the government, this draft Indian Telecommunication bill is another milestone step to develop a modern and future-ready legal framework in telecommunication. We are studying the newly drafted bill and will share our comments with the government in due course of time.”

Meanwhile, T.V. Ramachandran, president, Broadband India Forum (BIF), said, “Some of the provisions of the draft Indian Telecommunications Bill 2022, unfortunately appear to be prohibitive rather than facilitating/enabling for the larger digital ecosystem in the country. The provisions seem to take us back to the pre 1997 era by diluting the powers of the Regulator viz. Section 11(1) of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Act. This could lead to damage of investor confidence and undermining of the independence of the regulatory authority, owing to deletion of provisions which enable proper checks and balances. The bill, which should actually be forward-looking, is, on the contrary, taking us back to the older telecommunications era. Even NDCP recognised this in 2018 and the telecom policy was renamed as Digital Communications Policy, which should reflect in the naming of the bill as ‘Digital Communications Act’ ideally.”

Additionally, Tony Verghese, Partner, J. Sagar Associates, said, “The Indian Telecommunications Bill, 2002 is indeed a great move and a long awaited one. It has been a challenge for the telecom industry dealing with archaic laws for the last 3-4 decades, particularly the Indian Telegraph Act which was enacted during the 19th century including others which will now be repealed. The new bill has taken account the current gambit of services being offered using different forms of technology such as over-the-top (OTT), internet services via satellite-based communication services, in-flight and maritime services, broadcasting, internet, and broadband services, which will now fall within licensed services. The bill particularly covers aspects of restructuring, defaults and insolvency considering the status of this sector where has seen a lot of consolidation and mergers. There is flexibility given to the government with powers to waive fees, interest, penalties etc., however at the same time, making certain other offences such as wilful contravention, equipment/service-related breaches, cybercrimes using telecom infrastructure etc., being non-compoundable. Another interesting introduction is protection to users, which include unsolicited messages/calls, etc., which will go a long way in disciplining service providers misusing technology. I do hope that the new bill when enacted will provide progress and hopefully address a lot of issues, which were in the grey area as regards to telecommunication services.”