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Government notifies vacancy for TRAI chairperson; RS Sharma to retire in October

The Department of Telecommunications has started looking for TRAI chair RS Sharma’s replacement, publishing an advertisement to the effect on June 5. The Economic Times first reported the notification. Sharma has been the TRAI chairman since 2015, and had his tenure extended in 2018 until this September, when he will turn 65, the retirement age for his post. The subsequent chairman would start on October 1 if appointed by then.

Sharma was, in 2018, considered a leading candidate for chairing the Data Protection Authority of India. But the most recent draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill, which would set up the DPAI (Data Protection Authority of India), still requires that its chairperson be younger than 65.

Net Neutrality and price wars

Under RS Sharma, the telecom landscape of India shifted significantly. When he entered office, there were twice the number of wireless telecom providers as there are today — and prices barreled down after Reliance Jio entered the market. The chairman and other officers have insisted that a reduced number of players is not necessarily going to harm competitiveness, and that hyper-competition is possible even with a small number of players. Even so, incumbent operators often complained that the authority was not doing enough to curb the activities of the ‘new entrant’.

Rajan Mathews, head of the Cellular Operators Association of India, complained in 2018 that Sharma was ‘too pro-consumer’, at the expense of the industry. Sharma refuted this, saying that being pro-consumer doesn’t necessarily mean being anti-industry.

Sharma also led the TRAI as it created what are probably the strongest Net Neutrality rules in the world, both in terms of speed and pricing discrimination. In July, the Department of Telecommunications ratified those rules, amending license conditions with telecom operators to include Net Neutrality provisions.

Since his tenure’s extension in 2018, Sharma has overseen regulatory consultations in subjects such as loosening regulations for Other Service Providers (such as call centre operations), how Net Neutrality provisions should be enforced, and a broad consultation on cloud services. In many of these subjects, recommendations are forthcoming, including in the consultation on OTT regulation.

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