In the face of changing sector dynamics, growing data uptake and introduction of advanced technologies, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) role in building appropriate frameworks that safeguard and promote consumer interest has become prominent. As such, 2018 was an extremely busy year for the telecom watchdog as it formulated and finalised several key recommendations and regulations that will be crucial for shaping the future of the telecom industry. The year 2019 is expected to be even more eventful for the regulator as it engages in stakeholder consultations for meeting the objectives of the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018. In an interview with, Dr Ram Sewak Sharma, chairman, TRAI, talks about the telecom sector’s performance in 2018, TRAI’s stance on prevailing issues, and the regulator’s key focus areas for 2019…

How would you rate the telecom sector’s performance in 2018? What were the key regulatory milestones?

India is the world’s second largest tele­communications market. Its digital profile and footprint are among the fastest growing in the world. With over a billion mobile phones and digital identities and half a billion internet users, India’s mobile data consumption is the highest in the world. Over 200 million Indians regularly use social media and in the past year alone, over 200 million Indians took to mobile banking and digital payments. At the current pace of digitisation and digitalisation, it is estimated that India’s digital economy will reach $1 trillion by 2025. The unprecedented proliferation of mobile phones, the internet and social media platforms, and the rapid expansion of digital payments, data generation and consumption indicate that the data economy, and digital techno­logies and services are no longer the prerogative of the privileged few; they have indeed evolved into widespread instruments of access and empowerment for mo­re than a billion Indians.

The past few years have witnessed in­creased wireless data usage for communication and entertainment. Data usage has grown sharply with the entry of a new operator that uses LTE/4G technology, and also with the adoption of this technology by existing operators. Data growth is expected to continue in the future.

During 2018, TRAI made various recommendations and issued regulations and telecom tariff orders. It came out with recommendations on in-flight connectivity; next-generation public protection and disaster relief communication networks; privacy, security and ownership of data in the telecom sector; regulatory framework for internet telephony; methods for spectrum allocation for public mobile radio trunking service, including auctions as a transparent mechanism; the auction of spectrum in the 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, 2300 MHz, 2500 MHz, 3300-3400 MHz and 3400-3600 MHz bands; and the promotion of local telecom equipment manufacturing. The key regulations issued during 2018 include Tele­com­munication Interconnection; Inter­connec­­tion Usage Charges (IUC); Mobile Number Portability per Port Transaction Charge and Dipping Charge; Tele­commu­­ni­­cation Consumers Education and Protection Fund; Telecom Com­mer­cial Communication Custo­mer Pre­­ference; Standards of Quality of Service of Basic Telephone Service (Wireline) and Cellular Mobile Tele­phone Service; and International Tele­communication Cable Landing Sta­tions Access Facilitation Charges and Co-location Charges.

The 63rd and 64th amendments to the Telecommunications Tariff Order were also notified by the authority during 2018. The Telecommunication Ta­riff (63rd Amendment) Order, 2018 on Regulatory Principles of Tariff Assess­ment is intended to ensure transparency, non-discrimination and non-predation in telecom services.

What are your views on the current telecom market structure? What does it mean for consumers?

There were 11 operators in March 2015. This number has come down to four-five after the merger/closure of services by some operators. The reduction in data tariffs has resulted in increased data usage. India has become the second largest country in terms of internet subscribers, with 560 million internet subscribers as of September 2018. Strong policy support from the government has been crucial to the sector’s development. To propel the sector on a growth path, the government, on the basis of inputs received from TRAI, issued the NDCP, 2018, which envisages attracting $100 billion in investments for the sector by 2022.

“The unprecedented proliferation of mobile phones, the internet and social media platforms, and the rapid expansion of digital payments, data generation and consumption indicate that the data economy and digital technologies are no longer the prerogative of the privileged few; they have evolved into widespread instruments of access and empowerment for more than a billion Indians.”

For consumers, competition leads to innovation, access to new technologies, improved quality, affordable prices and a wider choice.

How much headway has been made on the quality of service (QoS) front?

TRAI has devised a new methodology for assessing call drops, issues relating to poor experience due to radio link timeouts in GSM networks and call muting on voice over LTE (VoLTE) networks, etc. Much headway has been made in the implementation of the new framework for controlling unsolicited commercial communications (UCC). The complete framework will be implemented in the coming months.

Also, more work needs to be done on improving customer experience in terms of network reliability, complaint re­d­ressal, etc.

How is India faring on the data services front? How has the public Wi-Fi market progressed?

India’s mobile data consumption is already the highest in the world. The NDCP, 2018 aims at the provisioning of broadband for all, and the deployments of public Wi-Fi hotspots to reach 5 million by 2020 and 10 million by 2022. Achieving these goals will require that all the key stakeholders – the centre, the states, the local governments and agencies, operators, internet service providers, infrastructure providers, handset and equipment manufacturers, the academic community, innovators and start-ups – come together to forge a coalition.

What are your views on India’s readiness for 5G services? What role is TRAI playing in developing the 5G ecosystem?

It is estimated that 5G can create an economic impact of $1 trillion in India by 2023. Timely deployment of 5G in India is essential for achieving the NDCP, 2018 objectives. It will further push the Digital India programme and help in making the government’s digital services available to all. The 5G High Level Forum, constituted by the government, has suggested  measures in the areas of spectrum, regulations, education and awareness, application and use cases, development of application layer standards, trials and technology demonstration, and participation in international standards. The government has also launched the Building an End-to-End 5G Test Bed programme to advance innovation and research in 5G. The Department of Tele­communications (DoT) and the Tele­communi­­cations Standards Develop­ment Society are working on standards, in collaboration with other stakeholders.

TRAI has given its recommendations on spectrum auctions in the 3300-3600 MHz band, which will be primarily used for the roll-out of 5G services. Some of the key challenges in India’s readiness for 5G services include identification of spectrum for 5G in mmWave, right of way (RoW) for small cell deployment, availability of backhaul spectrum, and streamlining existing policies and norms for next-generation networks.

What are your views on India’s telecom manufacturing ecosystem?

During the past two decades, the telecom services and passive infrastructure sectors have shown robust growth; however, telecom equipment manufacturing has not grown at a similar pace. A large part of the de­ma­nd for telecom equipment is for network equipment like switches, routers, base transceiver stations, multiplexing eq­uip­ment and antennas. This equipment is costly and mostly imported. A need, therefore, exists to encourage local manufacturing of telecom network equipment for reducing imports, and creating self-reliance and job opportunities in India. Fur­ther, the reliance on imported handsets and customer premises equipment (CPE) is very high. The authority had, in 2017, suo motu initiated a consultation process on Pro­mo­ting Local Telecom Equipment Manu­facturing. The objective was to realistically assess India’s true po­tential in telecom equipment manufacturing and arrive at recommendations to enable the Indian telecom equipment manufacturing sector to transition from an import-dependent sector to a global hub of indigenous manufacturing. After extensive consultations with the stakeholders, the regulator on August 3, 2018 forwarded its recommendations to the government. In its recommendations, TRAI covered various issues such as an institutional mechanism, skilled manpower, research, innovation, development, patent frameworks, resolution of disputes, standardisation, testing, certification, ma­nu­­facturing, productivity, market access and a specific level of incentives.

What are the key challenges facing the sector?

TRAI is aware that India lags behind other countries in terms of providing access to broadband, especially to people in rural areas. Like electricity a century ago, broadband has, over a period of time, become a critical platform for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and an improved way of life. Despite significant progress in the mobile tele­phony and mobile broadband space, delivering broadband to the last mile remains a challenge. The key challenges that India needs to overcome are:

  • Slow broadband penetration
  • Poor broadband speed
  • Limited awareness (in terms of the adoption of web technologies and digital literacy)
  • Low affordability.

How do you see TRAI’s role evolving with the increasing convergence of telecom with digital?

Over the past few years, we have seen ex­ponential growth in technology and today, the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication have become a reality. Voluminous data is generated whenever a user comes into contact with the digital ecosystem. We are, therefore, witnessing a “digital era”. Since data is ubiquitous in today’s world, the issue of protection of users’ personal data is a matter of deep concern for everyone. Large portions of data flow through telecom networks (or telecom pipes) and TRAI, being an independent regulator for the telecom and broadcasting sector in India, is sanguine about the importance and magnitude of the issue. Hence, the authority forwarded its recommendations on Privacy, Security and Ownership of Data in the Telecom Se­c­tor to the government in July 2018. The recommendations proposed, among other thin­gs, that all entities that control or process their personal data should be brou­ght under a data protection framework.

In September 2017, TRAI also submitted its recommendations to DoT on M2M communications, covering licensing, spectrum, e-SIM, roaming, QoS, security and privacy-related issues. The regulator has unbundled each layer of the M2M ecosystem and provided recommendations accordingly. In May 2018, DoT issued instructions for implementing restrictive features for SIMs used only for M2M communication services, related know your customer (KYC) instructions for issuing M2M SIMs to entities/organisations providing M2M communication services under the bulk category, and instructions for embedded SIMs. The new technologies have thrown up challenges for TRAI in facilitating their adoption. The authority is aware of these developments and will stand the test of time. For facilitating the growth of IoT, TRAI will bring out QoS norms for IoT services in 2019.

What kind of regulatory impetus will be required to meet the NDCP 2018 objectives?

The government, through the NDCP, 2018, seeks to spur socio-economic development up to the bottom of the pyramid by ensuring voice, video and data connectivity for all. It seeks to provide reliable and secure connectivity with assured QoS; facilitate the development of infrastructure and services for new technologies, including 5G and IoT; encourage innovation and manufacturing; and develop a large pool of digitally skilled manpower, by restructuring the regulatory and licensing frameworks impacting the telecom sector.

To meet the objectives of the NDCP, 2018, TRAI’s aim will be to hold consultations with all the stakeholders and bring out recommendations and regulations to aid the digital transformation of the government, enterprises and industry, and facilitate infrastructure development including the development of world-class cities through planned urbanisation.

What will be TRAI’s key focus areas in 2019?

One of TRAI’s key focus areas will be to create a conducive environment for meeting the objectives of NDCP 2018 by facilitating an ecosystem for the sharing of active/passive telecom infrastructure and common service frameworks in respect of digital communication and service re­qu­i­re­­ments for smart cities. In addition, the issues relating to common duct infrastructure, QoS of IoT and telecom networks, customer experience, and internet and broadband penetration, particularly in rural areas, will be addressed.