The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) actively engaged with the industry during the past year. Among the key regulatory moves of 2017 were a reduction in interconnect usage charges from Re 0.14 per minute to Re 0.06 per minute and the introduction of a graded penalty system for call drops. Besides, the regulator released recommendations on key subjects such as net neutrality, measures to improve ease-of-doing business and the approach towards sustainable communications. In addition, consultations were initiated on several other significant issues as well including local telecom equipment manufacturing, data ownership, privacy, security and regulatory principles of tariff assessment. In an interview with, Ram Sewak Sharma, chairman, TRAI, speaks about the performance of the sector in 2017, TRAI’s stance on prevailing issues, the announcements the industry can expect in the coming months and the regulator’s focus areas for 2018…

How would you rate the performance of the telecom sector in 2017?

The year 2017 was very eventful for the In­dian telecom sector. The intense competition in the market has brought down voice telephony and data tariffs. The declining data tariff and the technological innovation in the internet space have significantly enhanced wireless data usage. India has now become the top country in mobile data usage and is consuming more than 1.9 billion GB of data per month. 4G services started in a real sense in India in 2017. The sector is witnessing consolidation, which hopefully is in the interest of the overall sector, especially subscribers.

How is the regulator’s role likely to change with the emergence of a new consolidated market structure?

The telecom sector in India is currently witnessing consolidation. In this environment, wherein the consolidation of the market takes place through mergers and acquisitions, the role of the regulator wou­ld be to safeguard the interests of consumers, maintain a level playing field for the stakeholders and ensure orderly growth in the sector.

How important are net neutrality regulations for a market like India? Will the US repealing its net neutrality rules impact the Indian telecom market?

The internet has emerged as an important resource for innovation and economic growth, and as a medium to support information exchange within and across borders. The future growth of the telecom sector and of other access networks in India is contingent upon innovation in and growth of internet infrastructure and the applications, content and services linked to it. Net neutrality ensures that internet access services are governed by a principle that restricts any form of discrimination or interference in the treatment of content, including practices such as blocking, de­grading, slowing down or granting of preferential speeds or treatment to any content.

While framing recommendations on net neutrality, TRAI had kept the Indian context in mind. India may have differences in terms of the level of development, adoption of the internet, the state of the content business, and the regulatory, li­censing and legal framework within which it operates. All of these factors in­fluence the manner in which a country may deal with similar issues.

How much headway has been made on the quality of service (QoS) front? What are your views on operator concerns regarding the new call drop norms?

TRAI notified an amendment to the QoS regulations in August 2017. The revised regulation assesses the network performance on two new network-related parameters for assessing call drops – the drop call rate (DCR) spatial distribution measure or DCR Network_QSD (90, 90) (ben­ch­­mark 2 per cent) implies that at least 90 per cent of cells in the network should perform better than the specified 2 per cent benchmark on at least 90 per cent of the days. Similarly, another new parameter, the DCR temporal distribution measure or DCR Network_QTD (97, 90) will give confidence that on at least 90 per cent of the days, the network performed better than the specified 3 per cent benchmark for at least 97 per cent of the cells. The regulations came into effect from October 1, 2017. The revised methodology for the assessment of DCR will be on a percentile basis instead of the existing methodology of average of call drops of all base transceiver stations, which will re­move the anomaly of averaging the performance for the service area as a whole. This will give better insight into the service provider’s network performance and help identify local areas where cells have not performed well for many days and identify the days on which many cells in the network have not performed well. Also, a graded financial disincentive has been prescribed for failure to comply with the ben­ch­marks for the new parameters on call drops, with the maximum financial dis­incentive capped at Rs 1 million combined for both the parameters.

After the issue of the new QoS norms, service providers and their associations had expressed certain apprehensions over the implementation and achievability of the new norms. To this end, TRAI had examined all their apprehensions and clarified their doubts.

What has been the progress on the roll-out of public Wi-Fi in the country? How can TRAI’s proposed model of PDOs help expand broadband connectivity in rural areas?

Rolling out the public Wi-Fi network in the country is an ambitious project and, once implemented, will benefit the public to a large extent. TRAI, in its recommendation on the “Proliferation of Broad­band through Public Wi-Fi Networks” of Mar­ch 9, 2017, had proposed a new frame­work for the setting up of public data offices (PDOs). Under this framework, PDOs, in agreement with public data office aggregators (PDOAs), should be allowed to provide public Wi-Fi services. PDOAs may be allowed to provide public Wi-Fi services without obtaining any specific licence for the purpose. However, they would be subject to specific registration re­q­uirements, as prescrib­ed by the Depart­ment of Tele­commu­ni­­ca­ti­ons (DoT).

The authority had initiated a pilot trial of this framework on October 16, 2017, by laying down the network architecture for providing a multi-provider, interoperable and collaborative model. The vision of the pilot is to create a model that will enable small shopkeepers and entities to easily set up a public Wi-Fi system. This is expected to encourage village-level entrepreneurship and create employment opportunities as well as connectivity, especially in the rural areas. In addition, we are encouraging e-governance through common service centres (CSC) in rural areas to develop the CSCs’ systems in conformity with the architecture proposed for the pilot. The pilot is currently at the evaluation stage.

In your view, how prepared is the Indian market for the roll-out of 5G services? What role can TRAI play in developing the 5G ecosystem?

5G is a new generation of radio systems and network architecture that will have the capability to deliver ultra-broadband, ultra-robust, low-latency connectivity and massive networking. This will transform society and the economy at large. It will touch lives and the social fabric, and is inclined towards artificial intelligence. Massive deployments of machine-to-machine (M2M) and the internet of things (IoT) have the potential to shrink national boun­­daries. As regards spectrum for 5G technology, the access spectrum has been liberalised, that is, an operator can decide which technology to deploy in a spectrum band. TRAI has received a reference from DoT regarding the auction of spectrum in various bands including the 3300-3400 MHz and 3400-3600 MHz bands, which are globally identified as 5G bands. TRAI is studying international practices and the development of the ecosystem in these ban­ds and after due consultation, it will make its recommendations. Further, new spectrum for mobile broadband on higher frequencies is likely to be available only after the World Radiocommunication Confe­ren­­ce 2019. TRAI has also given its recommendations on M2M communications to develop a robust ecosystem that will en­courage M2M and IoT deployments. It is expected that a conducive environment will facilitate the growth of 5G in India.

“The future growth of the telecom sector and of other access networks in India is contingent upon innovation in and growth of internet infrastructure and the many applications, content and services linked to it.”

What are some of the regulatory concerns that still need to be addressed?

Enhanced competition has highlighted the urgent need to deal with emergent issues and challenges related to transparency, in­terconnect usage charge non-compliance, predatory pricing, tariffs related to promotional offers and different types of services, etc. Further, addressing the issue of unsolicited communications still re­mains our priority.

What will be TRAI’s key focus areas in 2018? What announcements can the industry ex­pect from it in the coming months?

The authority has recently initiated a consultation paper on the National Telecom Policy, 2018. It is our priority to give views highlighting the important areas for the formulation of the policy. Besides, consultation is ongoing on some of the key issues and the authority will issue its recommendations soon. These include local equipment manufacturing, data speeds under wireless broadband plans and privacy, security and ownership of data.

Besides, TRAI has finalised its recommendations on in-flight connectivity. It will also soon come out with its reco­mmen­dations on next-generation public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) communication networks. PPDR communications support a wide range of services related to the day-to-day life of the public such as maintenance of law and order, protection of life and property, disaster relief and emergency responses. The existing PPDR networks in the country are analog and digital systems supporting narrowband voice and data communications. The introduction of advanced PPDR communication networks can be a great enabler in decision-making and handling of PPDR operations for the personnel and organisations involved.