The Department of Telecommunication (DoT) of the Ministry of Communication has released the first draft of the new National Telecom Policy, which has been named National Digital Communication Policy this time, marking a clear shift in focus toward digital infrastructure and services.

The draft policy includes some crucial changes such as formation of a telecom ombudsman, setting up public-private partnership projects for broadband expansion, and some key policy changes in spectrum, tower and approval policies.

This policy, once approved and adopted, will replace the National Telecom Policy 2012, which was focused on providing affordable and quality telecommunication services in rural and remote areas. The DoT will take responses from stakeholders and the public, and possibly make amendments to the draft before it is approved.

Here are some key highlights:

Broadband

Expanding broadband connectivity has been given high weightage in the policy, as it directs the establishment of a National Broadband Mission with a specific goal of universal broadband access. Under this mission, there are four initiatives (BharatNet, GramNet, NagarNet, JanWiFi), of which three drive rural connectivity, and NagarNet for urban broadband. The projects will be run through public private partnerships and will be funded by DoT’s Universal Service Obligation Fund.

  • Fibre First Initiative: Under this, Telecom Optic Fibre cables will be given the status of a public utility. The initiative will focus of building shared duct infrastructure, fiberisation of 60% tower base stations and leveraging broadcasting and power sector assets for the process. The initiative also plans to mandate telecom and cable installations in office and home space by amending the National Building Code of India.
  • National Digital Grid: A national fibre authority will be formed for coordination between central, state and local authorities to remove barriers of approval and to create open access next-gen networks.
  • Mobile Towers: If approved, changes can be expected in tower policy by way of exemptions and incentives for tower construction. This will include acceleration in Right of Way permissions for towers in government premises, and promotion of green energy for towers.
  • International Connectivity: Access charges and regulatory hurdles will be reduced for international cable landing stations for overall reduction of international bandwidth cost.
  • Convergence: According to the draft policy, Telegraph Act (and other relevant acts) will be amended to build convergence in IT, telecom and broadcasting sectors. This includes establishing a unified policy framework and spectrum management for broadband and broadcast, and renewed licensing and regulation.

Spectrum

  • The government plans to make available more spectrum bands for 5G deployment.
  • It plans further liberalisation of spectrum sharing, leasing and trading. The Centre had recently increased spectrum holding caps for telcos after consolidation in the sector.
  • The draft policy also emphasises on “optimal pricing” of spectrum for affordability and increase of access to digital communication.
  • The policy mentions simplification of the permission obtaining process.
  • The government will conduct spectrum audits of commercial and government bodies to ensure efficient utilisation.
  • The mid-band spectrum, particularly the 3 GHz to 24 GHz range is recognised as central to India’s strategy for next-gen networks.
  • Annual royalty charges for microwave links will be rationalised to allow backhaul connectivity.

Satellite Communication

The DoT plans to review the policy for satellite communication (along with Department of Space), likely to make available additional transponders and new spectrum bands for commercial satellite based communication. The department also plans to rationalise satellite transponder, spectrum charges and charges payable to the Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing.

Interestingly, the draft policy has also mentioned promoting private players’ participation in satellite communication infrastructure, a  sector that has been largely held by the government.

Ease of doing business

  • Likely change in spectrum usage charge to reflect cost of regulation and administration of spectrum.
  • Rationalisation of tax on digital communication infrastructure, equipment and services.
  • Differential licensing for infrastructure, network, services and application.
  • Simplifying licensing and regulatory compliance and building an end-to-end online platform for all purposes.
  • Formulating timelines for government departments in providing various licenses and permissions.
  • Enabling 5G for IoT applications and services
  • For start-ups : Reducing the entry barriers by reducing the initial cost and compliance burden, promoting startups in government procurement, and assisting them in filing copyright, patents and trademarks. The draft also mentions academic collaborations, permissions for pilots and testing, and concessions on imported software for startups.

Consumer interests

The draft has included formation of a telecom ombudsman for protection of consumers’ rights and interests. This comes after the Bombay High Court asked the Centre in April to instate a telecom ombudsman. This move has been demanded for years, (at least since 2004). Most recently by TRAI, who also wrote of the need of an ombudsman in its recommendation for this policy. A telecom ombudsman will address the large need for consumer complaint redressal in the sector.

Establishing of a centralised web based complaint redressal system has also been added in the new policy.

The draft policy lends support to the principle of net neutrality, which is a part of at least seven of the government’s goals for 2022. More on that here.

The TRAI submitted its recommendations for the new telecom policy a few months back. Find out what the regulatory body said here and here.