Govt may not table telecom bill this year

Live Mint, November 05, 2023

The government is unlikely to table the draft Indian Telecommunications Bill for Parliament’s approval in the upcoming winter session, said two people familiar with the development.

The people said, asking not to be named, that the government intended to launch deeper inter-ministerial discussions on some of the issues, which were continuously evolving.

“The bill will be relevant for the coming decade, so it will need a very careful approach and meaningful discussions. That will take some time,” one of the people said.

The second person aware of the deliberations said that while regulating over the top (OTT) entities is likely to be kept out of the bill—they will be regulated by the IT Act instead—the government intends to pre-empt any additional issues that may crop up in the coming years, including those related to OTTs.

The communications ministry and department of telecom did not respond to queries sent by Mint.

The government planned deeper discussions on the draft bill come at a time when telecom service providers have demanded the same rules for the same kind of services being provided by telcos and OTTs.

In communications to the government, the carriers have said the upcoming telecom bill should govern all the aspects of OTT services since they operate by “heavily exploiting” telecom networks but do not fall under any regulation or law.

“Our limited point is please subject everybody to the same rules. Let’s not have regulatory arbitrage determine the course of technology and industry,” Gopal Vittal, managing director of India’s No 2 carrier Bharti Airtel said in the Q2FY24 earnings call last week.

He highlighted the regulation arbitrage by giving the example of a direct to home service provider, which is subject to price regulation, licence fee and cross-holding restrictions in content companies. But if same content is provided on cable, it’s only subject to price regulation. And if the same content is delivered through a broadband pipe in the form of an app, it is not subject to any regulation.

For a while now, telcos have also been demanding a fair share of the revenues earned by OTT platforms considering that some streaming apps have started offering bandwidth-heavy services and generating high traffic, which is forcing telcos to upgrade and enhance the capacity of their networks. Therefore, telecom service providers are seeking a contribution from the OTTs for network expenses.

Communications ministry officials have however said earlier that the government was not considering a revenue-sharing model between OTT players or apps and telecom service providers for using the telcos’ networks for carriage of the apps. They added that there was no such mechanism in the works in the government. Interestingly, the Union Cabinet has already cleared the draft Indian Telecommunications Bill, Mint had reported in August.

The government had issued the new telecom bill called the Draft Indian Telecommunications Bill, 2022 in September last year where it proposed to increase the scope of telecommunication services by including OTT, internet-based and satellite-based communication services, broadcasting, internet and broadband services within its ambit, which has been red flagged by social media and technology companies in the messaging space as it could lead to regulation of OTT communication apps.

While the provisions of the bill were likely to cut across all sectors, the distribution about what would be dealt in the other bills that the government was coming up with, would be made clear by way of ‘carve-outs’.

The bill which had proposed to curtail or dilute powers of Trai in its initial draft is likely to exclude those provisions in its final version. The bill had proposed to delete provisions of the Trai Act that provide checks and balances via a consultation process between the regulator and the telecom department.

The bill that will replace three existing but old legislation, including the 1885 Indian Telegraph Act, is aimed at becoming the umbrella legislation on all forms of communication or carriage of voice and data. In its initial form, the bill gave the government the power to waive fee, interest, additional charges, penalty or damages and even grant exceptions from the provisions of the bill when it becomes an Act.

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