Few TRAI chiefs can claim to have witnessed the kind of change and turbulence that RS Sharma has. The entry of Jio, the consolidation of the telecom industry, Net Neutrality regulations, and anti-spam regulations are some of the things TRAI has had a key role in over the last five years. Under his leadership, TRAI won international praise for strong Net Neutrality recommendations and regulations. At the same time, it also drew the ire of telecom operators for what they perceived was preferential treatment to Jio that, they claim, put existing telecom operators on the back foot.
Under Sharma’s leadership, the number of telecom operators in the country shrank even as customers benefited from lower data prices (which are now inching up again). Sharma’s tenure ends on September 30. In interviews and remarks over the last few weeks, an agenda appears for what work remains for TRAI, as does an accounting for Sharma’s five years at the helm.
- Optimistic about telecom industry: While the telecom industry has not always been fond of Sharma, he was full of praise — and surprisingly, sympathy — for telcos. In an interview with PTI, he said, “I have full faith in professionalism of the telecom operators. They are highly qualified and highly professional people managing technology and networks,” adding that he was confident that telcos would pull through in the COVID-19 pandemic. He also complained about the taxes levied on telecom companies at the Broadband India Forum’s Connecting Bharat event: “Telecom infra[structure] must become as essential as water pipes, electricity or the television infrastructure… However, when it comes to telecom, you start charging money from telecom service providers, which is so perverse I must say,” he was quoted by Mint as saying.
- Platform and device neutrality: Interestingly, Sharma said in an interview with PTI that devices and platforms such as app stores need to be regulated for fairness. While he sidestepped the issue of whether TRAI in particular was empowered to do this, it’s a stance that is likely informed by three things: first, the recent conflicts between app developers and platforms like Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store; second, telecom operators’ persistent arguments that devices and software should also be regulated under Net Neutrality rules; and finally, his confrontation with Apple after the company refused to allow TRAI’s spam-reporting app on the App Store. “Platforms, Operating Systems, devices…if they are not neutral they can become new gatekeepers…telecom service providers will not exhibit this behaviour because of net neutrality principles,” Sharma said.
- Domestic manufacturing and platforms: On encouraging local manufacturing of telecom equipment, something TRAI has released recommendations on, Sharma said, “Connectivity which is driven by domestic manufacturing is what I would put as my dream number one for India 2025. That should happen.”
- Local over ‘closed’ foreign platforms: Sharma also made a pitch for local platforms, in opposition to what he described as “closed” foreign platforms. “Sometimes [closed platforms] start weaponising their users,” Sharma was quoted as saying at the BIF event. You remember in the differential pricing in 2016, the Free Basics debate, [Facebook] weaponised their users and I got millions of letters and mails from the users, prompted by Facebook to send that we love Free Basics. So these are some of the ills which are now coming out of these closed platforms, and we need to develop a completely new one, alternative,” he added.
- Increased access to broadband: In the BIF event, he said that he hoped for more broadband coverage in the coming years. “Broadband” in TRAI’s definition includes not just fixed line internet, but also sufficiently fast mobile internet. “I see India by 2025 as a country where every person will have access to Broadband. Currently, we have 667 million or thereabouts… we should have an entire 1.3 billion population with access to high-quality broadband,” he said.
- Satellite internet: Sharma argued that liberalising regulations to allow for satellite connectivity was essential for bringing high speed internet to underserved areas. “There’s an urgent need to liberalise the satcom policy to boost satellite-based broadband penetration in rural, remote and hilly regions that remain largely unconnected by mobile and terrestrial communication networks, given the big global advances in satellite technologies,” Sharma was quoted by the Economic Times as saying at an event held by the ITU-APT Foundation of India.
- On alleged pro-Jio bias: While Sharma conceded in an interview with The Hindu that the telecom industry was injured over the last few years — “Maybe there are many stakeholders who have been hurt… they might have been hurt very badly, I agree,” he was quoted as saying — he was nevertheless defensive on allegations that the regulator was biased towards Jio. “We have tried to maintain, irrespective of what may have been attributed to us, an absolutely unbiased approach… consistent with the objectives of the TRAI,” he said.