Speaking at a virtual event organised by the Cyber Cafe Association of India (CCOAI), Jio’s Amit Mathur shared his thoughts on the recently released Draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022, which has been in controversy ever since it came out. He highlighted the lack of clarity in defining what services will be regulated under the bill, how identity verification will lead to challenges and how the bill gives excess powers to the Centre. Mathur has been the Head of Data Regulations and Data Infrastructure for the past two years at Jio and was the Executive Senior Vice President of Reliance Communications for 20 years before that. Medianama’s founder Nikhil Pahwa was also a part of the panel discussion and his insights on various topics have been featured to provide a better context.
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Here are the key points on the draft telecom bill shared by Jio’s representative:
Need clarity on the definitions: In the draft telecom bill, the government has tried to “streamline” things compared to the “all-encompassing” Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, Mathur said. Despite that, “all of us are not very clear” about it, Mathur added. There are various definitions, “TRAI has used one definition for OTT communication services, DoT internal committee which looked at net neutrality – they talked about a slightly different definition of OTT services, so clarity on those definitions would go a long way in clearing out some of those concerns which people have today”.
Context: In the draft telecom bill, the government has provided a broad definition of what telecom services mean and thus fall in the ambit of regulations. It includes e-mail, voice mail, video and data communication services, internet-based communication services, interpersonal communication services, machine-to-machine communication services, and OTT services provided by the telcos. Telecommunications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has clarified that this includes services like WhatsApp, Zoom etc but still, a lot of uncertainty prevails on what will be regulated, even with the leaders of telcos.
Nikhil’s take: The definition of what will be regulated under the telecom bill doesn’t just include internet communication services, it seems to include all services including e-commerce and cloud because everything on the internet is some form of communication. If you’re buying something from e-commerce you’re effectively communicating an intent to buy. This could even be detrimental to emerging startups providing internet services as they will have to comply with various licensing requirements to offer services.
Shift towards convergence: Whether we like it or not, convergence is happening, Mathur said. Convergence means bundling together various services such as data, voice, video, Internet telephone (VoIP), broadcasting services etc. “The end user is using all the services on a single device today and it’s a convergence – (if) you try to regulate separately, we’ll go into vertical regulations, we’ll have all kinds of issues we have talked about. One service could be regulated by three different entities” Mathur added. He went on to say that “this could be the opportunity where we look at convergence and try and build a framework for convergence itself.”
Nikhil’s take: The internet is not a telecom service, the telecom operators merely provide access to the Internet, hence it is essential to separate regulations of content from regulations of carriage. Instead of regulating everything under one law, there can be an access bill which regulates telecom service providers. With the current draft, “You’re bringing a licensing framework for the internet, you may not start with that but you’ve opened the door for that”.
The heavy burden of verification: “All of us would agree that national security is of utmost importance, we have to ensure that individual security is also important”, Mathur said. He added, the bill says “everybody has to be verified using a verifiable document (but) even today in India, we don’t have 100% availability of Aadhar card with everybody.” There are already 13-14 defined documents which are accepted by DoT for verification. Just moving it to a verifiable document will deprive certain people from getting onto the telecom services itself”. Mathur also noted that building the infrastructure to verify documents will require telcos to incur additional costs.
Context: Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has argued that verification (such as KYC) is imoprtant to reduce cyber crimes in the country. It is not yet clear how such verification will be done and who all will have to do it. Uncertainty still prevails.
Nikhil’s take: KYC hasn’t helped telecom operators reduce spam so how will it help platforms such as WhatsApp which already have better spam protection? Moreover, people would not be very comfortable sharing their ID details with organisations such as Facebook. It seems like a mechanism to validate IT rules which have already tried to break the encryption offered by WhatsApp.
Excessive power with the Centre is a problem: The draft bill “gives the kind of power to the government or the department that is much much higher than what is available in the current telegraph act”, Mathur said. If someone buys a spectrum worth Rs 10,000 crore and then is not able to pay it back, the centre has the power to waive off this amount, he explained. Mathur added that “The kind of discriminatory power that is going to come in is scary for everybody as a whole industry. That is something to be looked at and that’s why I talked about the TRAI Act, TDSAT, which brings in checks and balances to all these actions. (It) is very critical for the whole thing to work well.”
Don’t want a repeat of the 2G scam: “We feel that the only way spectrum allocation should be done is through auction, because that gets you the optimum value and there’s no subjectivity in that and we don’t want a repeat of the 2G scam”, Mathur said. The erstwhile UPA government was accused of granting spectrum licenses (in 2008) for 2g networks at ‘throwaway prices’ causing a nominal loss of Rs 1.76 lakh crore to the government.
Context: The proposed bill allows the Central government to assign spectrum without holding auctions for public interest or for “government functions”.
Dilution of TRAI and TDSAT’s role: “I’m not sure whether TDSAT will still exist or not, that’s something which is not very clear”, Mathur said. He praised the existing structure in which the Department of telecommunications (DoT), Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribuna (TSAT) are working and said these checks and balances should not be disturbed. The draft bill does away with certain powers of TRAI and TDSAT. For instance, the draft bill says DoT can simply reject TRAI’s recommendations under certain conditions. According to the existing rules, DoT has to ask TRAI for a review if it does not agree with TRAI, and then TRAI prepares another recommendation, Mathur explained.
Nikhil’s take: Not everything needs to be monetised in the telecom sector. If you can get the government to use the public spectrum for public good then what’s the problem?
Concerns with USOF fund: Mathur said about Rs 60,000 to 65,000 crore was collected into the consolidated fund but it never came back to the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) for deployment.
Context: The USOF collects a levy of 5% of telcos’ Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR) to improve telecom access in rural and remote areas.
As telcos, we’re saying, first, let’s utilise the existing fund before collecting the money again, Mathur added. He even suggested a way to utilise the fund. We cannot get 5g smartphones for less than Rs 10,000 for now, so the collected funds can be utilised to subsidise 5g smartphones for lowering their cost, he said.
The good and bad in Right of the Way (RoW) – Mathur appreciated the government’s work in this direction and gave one suggestion.
Context: The RoW helps telcos get approvals regarding installing infrastructure and settling disputes.
He said, even though the bill says the Central government’s decision would “override what the state or local authorities look at it. But the Constitution of India defines certain powers which reside with the local authorities in terms of providing permissions in local areas. How is that going to play out, we’re not very sure, so what we’re suggesting is that there has to be more coordination between the centre, the state and local authorities, to ensure that RoW is available. Because otherwise, whatever we’re talking about 5g or FTTS is not going to happen unless we have this issue sorted out and we have a very smooth mechanism.”
The sandbox concept is a good idea: This could be very useful to bring in more services, Mathur said.
Context: The draft bill allows “special terms and conditions” to be created for licensing, registration, etc to encourage innovation.
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