According to industry sources, telcos have asked for cable laying and repair to be designated under the critical and essential services and that these have priority for permits- in-principle and clearances – from government agencies. The telcos have also suggested that the framework for setting up cable landing stations be amended to streamline the process of approvals make it a fast track with time-bound approval process in response to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI’s) consultation paper on ‘Licensing Framework and Regulatory Mechanism for Submarine Cable Landing in India’.

Of late, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had sought recommendations from TRAI on the licensing framework and regulatory mechanism for submarine cables landing in India within the scope of existing international long-distance (ILD) permits. The regulator had also been tasked to vet current global practices around regulation of submarine cables landing in global markets as part of the exercise.

Meanwhile, in response to the TRAI’s consultation paper, Reliance Jio reiterated that in order to fast-track the approvals the regulator should take a leaf from the ‘Essentiality Certificate’ (EC) issued to offshore sector vessels engaged in Oil exploration projects by DGH (Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas) to grant ‘Critical and Essential Services’ status to cable landing stations and associated activities. Citing reason, the operator noted that the ‘Critical and Essential Services’ certification’ will potentially help boost the submarine data cable infrastructure and will considerably enhance international connectivity and consequently Indian economy. On the other hand, Bharti Airtel asserted that there needs to be a criteria for allowing a licensed international long-distance operator (ILDO)/ internet service provider (ISP) who wants to set up a cable landing stations and terminate any submarine international cable in India over its cable landing stations. The operator is of the opinion that the criteria should include minimum networth and holding a minimum equity percentage (i.e. 10 per cent stake or investment), either directly or indirectly in the proposed submarine cable/consortium, and that such a qualifying criteria should be applicable prospectively for future cables as the existing consortium agreements have long been closed.

Jio and Airtel seemed to be divided on the geographic scope of domestic cables in Indian waters. While Airtel advocated allowing domestic traffic on cables, which are part of or merge with an international cable, including cables in international waters beyond the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Jio argued that for being acceptable and viable, the domestic cable should be completely domestic i.e. never go beyond Indian territorial water and carry strictly domestic traffic. Moreover, Jio proposed that there should be no ownership criteria to apply for cable landing stations and related permissions and the existing process should be continued. However, it reiterated the need to check the financial viability of ILD license holders when seeking to set up cable landing stations.

However, on the matter of laying domestic submarine cable and its cable landing station, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) pointed out that the current framework requires multiple window approvals and clearances cause most of the delays and hence, increased project cost. Since domestic cable capacity requires quick restoration in case of any planned/unplanned outages, it is important that the entire process of approvals and permissions to mobilise repair vessels, equipment and manpower have to be streamlined and eased, the operator emphasised. In addition, Vi added that an Indian vessel would come handy here subject to most of the “must-have” approvals could be done away with.