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OTT players could escape regulation under new telecom bill

The Union Cabinet has cleared the draft Indian Telecommunication Bill 2023, which contains certain relaxations in regulating communication services such as WhatsApp and Google Meet, The Indian Express has learnt.

The Bill, however, is unlikely to be introduced in the ongoing session of Parliament.

A senior government official said there are significant relaxations to the process of regulating over-the-top (OTT) communication services by requiring them to obtain a licence from the government — among the most contentious issues in the Bill.

“Cabinet has cleared Indian Telecommunication Bill 2023 but the government is not in a hurry to table it in the current session,” said a source, who did not wish to be identified.

The Bill was first released last year and in that version, it proposed to include services like WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram in the definition of telecommunication services.

As per the initial draft, providers of telecommunication services will be covered under the licensing regime, and will be subjected to similar rules as other telecom operators.

This issue has been under contention for several years now with telecom service providers seeking a level-playing field with OTT apps over communication services such as voice calls, messages, etc. where operators had to incur high costs of licences and spectrum, while OTT players rode on their infrastructure to offer free services.

Another contentious provision in the initial Bill was its attempt to amend the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act (TRAI Act) to dilute the sectoral watchdog’s function of being a recommendatory body. This provision, too, is understood to have been relaxed in the version cleared by Cabinet, as per the official.

It also proposed that if a telecom entity in possession of spectrum goes through bankruptcy or insolvency, the assigned spectrum will revert to the control of the Centre. So far, in insolvency proceedings, there has been a lack of clarity on whether the spectrum owned by a defaulting operator belongs to the Centre, or whether banks can take control of it.

The draft Bill also accords the Centre powers to defer, convert into equity, write off or grant relief to any licensee under extraordinary circumstances, including financial stress, consumer interest, and maintaining competition, among other things.

It seeks to replace three laws – the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950. Indian Express

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