Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022 & TRAI

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    In Context

    • The government is recently seen deliberating upon the removal of provisions in the proposed telecom policy.

    More about the news

    • Recently the government released the draft of “The Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022”.
      • In the draft government proposes significant changes like
        • Provisions for waiving off dues for financially stressed operators, 
        • Bringing over-the-top (OTT) platforms within the ambit of telecom services that require a licence to operate, and 
        • Provisions for message interception in case of public emergency.
    • Major issues:
      • Diluting TRAI’s powers:
        • The concerns were regarding the possible dilution of powers of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in the proposed telecom policy.
      • Making TRAI subservient to the government:
        • Bill undermines the regulator, by proposing to “take away the TRAI’s statutory independence, and seeks to make it subservient to the government”. 
          • For example, the Bill proposed to remove provisions for referencing and back-referencing recommendations between the DoT and the TRAI. 
          • The Bill also proposed to amend clauses that gave the regulator power to notify tariffs at which telecom services are to be offered.
    • Government’s move:
      • Separate bill & strengthening the TRAI:
        • One of the things that the government is now considering is removing almost all TRAI-related amendments proposed in the draft telecom policy and bringing in a separate Bill with the objective of strengthening the TRAI.
      • Global examples:
        • Supposedly, the government wants to strengthen the TRAI to bring it at par with bodies such as the U.S.’ regulator Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the U.K.’s Ofcom, with highly technical-oriented people and powers to impose penalties, among other things.

    Draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022

    • Aim of the Bill:
      • Reforming existing telecom laws and regulations, and making them future ready.
    • Key Provision of Bill:
      • License for OTTs: 
        • Bringing OTTs under the ambit of telecom services means that OTT and internet-based communications would require a license to offer services.
        • OTT Platforms have to obtain a license from the government just like other telecom operators.
      • Interception of Information:
        • Information transmitted and received over telecommunication services could be intercepted by an authorised official of the government in the interest of the:
          • Sovereignty, 
          • Integrity or security of India, 
          • Friendly relations with foreign states, 
          • Public order, or preventing incitement to an offence. 
      • Clarity on Spectrum Assignment: 
        • The Bill reaffirms the government’s authority to assign spectrum, with or without auction, and declares common good and access to telecom services as the objective for spectrum assignment. 
      • Licensing Internet-based apps: 
        • The Bill requires OTT communication services – which are essentially Internet-based apps/ software – to obtain telecom licenses and thereby bring them under the telecom framework. 
      • Changes in TRAI Act:
        • At present, the TRAI Act requires the government to seek the regulator’s recommendations before issuing licences to service providers. 
        • It also allows the TRAI to request the government to furnish information or documents necessary to make recommendations. These powers have been proposed to be removed in the new draft Bill.
        • The TRAI may direct operators “to abstain from predatory pricing” that is harmful to overall health of telecom sector, competition, long term development and fair market mechanism. 
        • A current provision in the TRAI Act which prohibits the appointment of a government official as TRAI’s chairperson who has not served either as Secretary or Additional Secretary has also been proposed to be removed in the new draft Bill.
      • Wide expanse of shutdown and surveillance powers: 
        • The Bill allows the government to direct suspension of transmission of messages or provision of telecom networks or services. 
        • These powers are much wider than the currently existing framework on internet shutdowns and interception, and include directions for interception and disclosure of data, and suspension/ surveillance of messages “relating to any particular subject”.
      • Control of Government:
        • In case a telecom entity in possession of spectrum goes through bankruptcy or insolvency, the spectrum assigned to it will revert to the control of the Central government.
      • Easing criminal penalties: 
        • The Bill removes several redundant penalties:
          • Imposes a quantum of penalties based on severity; and 
          • Introduces settlement of offences by payment of fines, and voluntary undertaking.

    Other issues & challenges regarding the Telecom bill

    • End-to-end encrypted: 
      • It is unclear how these provisions could potentially impact calls over WhatsApp which are typically end-to-end encrypted; meaning the company itself does not have access to the information being transmitted over such calls.
    • Content regulation: 
      • There is no law or autonomous body to monitor and manage the digital contents provided on these OTT platforms and it is made available to the public at large without any filter or screening.
    • More Power is Needed: 
      • The OTT platform handles high-resolution video data. As a result, operating these platforms will require additional power. 
      • The rising demand for storage capacity is due to increased electricity, energy, and fiber capacity use.
    • Piracy of videos: 
      • Since the beginning of regular television, piracy has been a concern. 
      • Video piracy affects a business a lot of money, as well as users and reputation. 
      • User data and content leaks are both at danger when OTT platforms are hacked. 
      • In the United States, about 21% of the population watches pirated television.

    Way Ahead

    • The Bill would augment ease of doing business and considerably reduce the threat of criminal prosecution for operational issues faced by telecom operators. 
    • Given the dynamic and multifaceted nature of Internet-based services, subjecting them to a telecom licensing regime with criminal penalties could stifle innovation or even isolate the Indian market.

    Source: TH