The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, headed by Congress Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, asked the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) about internet shutdowns in the country and the procedure around them. The committee repeatedly stressed that they want as few shutdowns as possible and bulk of the three-hour meeting on August 11 was devoted to discussing the procedures around suspension of internet and telecom services. India has already seen 55 internet shutdowns in 2020.

While on the one hand the committee ruminated over lack of internet access, on the other it questioned the DoT over 5G preparedness of the country and why 5G deployment had been delayed.

‘Kashmir has internet, albeit slow internet,’ says DoT

As expected, the issue of the internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir, which is the longest in the world, was raised by committee members. Three sources told us that the DoT said that 2G services had already been restored in the Union Territory because of which Kashmiris already had access to internet, albeit at lower speeds. Dubey (BJP) told the committee that when he had visited Kashmir in July 2020, he faced no problems in accessing the internet, two sources told us.

In response, Tharoor (Congress) and Moitra (TMC) talked about how internet was important to exercise free speech and conduct business, both of which are guaranteed by Article 19 of the Indian constitution.

While this discussion was going on in the Parliament House, four kilometres away, the Attorney General of India K.K. Venugopal, was (virtually) telling the Supreme Court that the Special Committee had decided to restore 4G internet in a district each of Jammu and Kashmir on a trial basis after August 15. It is not known if the two districts in question have been identified.

In response to questions by the committee, DoT Secretary Anshu Prakash stressed that internet shutdowns are ordered in response to law and order situations, three sources told us. Multiple questions were raised about whether or not the Department of Telecommunications had complied with the Supreme Court’s directions in the Anuradha Bhasin judgement. The DoT said that when an internet shutdown is ordered by a state government, the Department did not know if the apex court’s directions were followed or not. This lack of clarity drew the ire of a few committee members, including Chairperson Tharoor, two sources told us.

Few committee members maintained that in the name of law and order, internet shutdowns should not be used to harass people, two sources told us. The Committee reminded DoT that as per the Anuradha Bhasin judgement, only temporary shutdowns were possible.

Three sources told us that the composition, structure and functioning of the Review Committee, as defined under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 and the duration within which orders must be reviewed were extensively discussed.

The Committee asked why the state government or the DoT could not take a call on ordering internet shutdowns, and why they must always be routed through the Union Home Ministry, especially because law and order is a state subject, two sources told us. One source told us that this led to a debate between Tharoor and Moitra, who argued that the shutdowns should be routed through the DoT as the Department issues telecom and ISP licences, and Dubey, who said that it should be referred to the chief secretary of the state since law and order is a state subject.

‘Focus on Make in India for 5G’

The DoT told the committee that the Department of Telecommunications is preparing for 5G rollout. In response to questions by the committee members on whether companies such as Huawei and ZTE would be allowed to bid for participation in 5G trials in India, the DoT said that this would need to be discussed with the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Home Ministry would decide whether allowing such companies to participate posed a risk to the national security, two sources told us.

One of the sources also told us that the committee discussed the need to make 5G technology in India so that the Indian economy could get a boost. To that end, there is a need to increase spending on research and development, the committee concurred, as per two sources. The DoT also said that not all components could be manufactured in India and ultimately some would have to be imported from other countries, two sources told us. As of now, instead of being made in India, 5G infrastructure was being assembled in India, the DoT informed the Committee.

The Committee also inquired about the status of the Centre’s Building an End-to-End 5G Test Bed project, under which ₹224 crore were awarded to IIT Madras, IIT Hyderabad, IIT Delhi, IIT Kanpur, Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWiT), Society for Applied Microwave Electronics Engineering and Research (SAMEER) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore to develop a 5G test bed through which academia and industry can collaborate on operationalising 5G networks, two sources told us. The duration of this grant is three years.

DoT acknowledged the delay in the project as per one source we spoke to. Another source told us that the DoT said that the trials would be done by March 2021, but their statement was not corroborated by the other three sources we spoke to.

The two industry bodies that deposed before the Standing Committee — Telecom Equipment Manufacturers Association of India (TEMA) and Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) — both said that the 5G spectrum price should be low to allow telecom operators to enter the market and compete, two sources told us. COAI and TEMA said that private companies that control 90% of the market have all the purchasing power making it harder for other players to compete. COAI was represented by its director general, Lt Gen. Dr S.P. Kochhar. COAI and TEMA also told the committee about the need to break the monopoly of a few telecom operators, two sources said.

‘Why have all panchayats not been connected via broadband?’ asks committee

BharatNet, the central government’s scheme to link all panchayats in the country with broadband, was also discussed, three sources said. The committee asked the officials from Ministry of Communications why 1,10,000 panchayats were still not connected by broadline but did not get a satisfactory response, one source told us.

The performances of BSNL and MTNL were also discussed. All four sources told us that BharatNet and telecom PSUs are a recurrent theme in the committee’s discussions.

The meeting, that lasted almost three hours, was attended by 11 MPs: Chairperson Shashi Tharoor, Mahua Moitra, Locket Chatterjee, Nishikant Dubey, Raksha Nikhil Khadse, Santosh Pandey, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Tejasvi Surya, Anil Agrawal, Syed Nasir Hussain, and Shri Shaktisinh Gohil. Moitra, Surya and Rathore are also part of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill which was to convene at the same time. An hour into the meeting, Surya and Rathore left for that while Moitra attended the Standing Committee’s meeting, three sources told us.