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Telecom Bill drops OTT reference, retains regulator Trai’s powers

The new telecom Bill, which was tabled in the Lok Sabha on Monday, seeks to keep over-the-top (OTT) services away from the purview of the proposed law, even as it retains the powers given to the country’s telecom regulator. It also looks to clear the decks for the Centre to allocate satellite spectrum and steps back on the plans for taking away spectrum from insolvent telecom operators.

The proposed legislation further allows the government to temporarily take control of telecom services in the interest of national security.

Spanning over 46 pages, the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, defines telecommunications services as “any service for telecommunications” — a departure from previous drafts that had extended the definition to include OTT platforms like WhatsApp and Skype, among a host of specialised communication services, including machine-to-machine, in-flight, and maritime communications. This was demanded by telecom service providers, such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio, which had argued that OTTs offer audio and video calls, and messaging without paying licence or spectrum fees.

In the absence of modern legislation, many technologies, including OTTs, were judicially interpreted to fall under the erstwhile Indian Telegraph Act.

To eliminate any confusion, these will now be regulated by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), according to informed sources.

The verification of OTT users and related issues may be taken up under the MeitY’s proposed Digital India Bill, they said. Officials had earlier said the government aimed to regulate communication apps “that give the same service as telecom operators”.

The telecom Bill, the sources said, is expected to be debated by both houses of Parliament and passed in the upcoming Budget session.

The proposed law seeks to empower the government to take over, manage, or suspend any or all telecommunication services or networks in the interest of national security.

Provisions to reclaim spectrum from insolvent telecom companies have been removed, pending amendments to the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, the sources said.

Satellite spectrum to be allocated
The Bill also includes satellite spectrum in a list of sectors where the government has the right to administratively allocate spectrum, thereby ending a debate that had divided the telecom industry.

A satellite or orbit is a segment of radio spectrum made available when satellites are placed into orbit. There was a debate over whether the scarce resource be auctioned or allocated by the government. The Bill has named teleports, television channels, D2H, digital satellite news gathering, and very small aperture terminal (VSAT) and mobile satellite services in L and S bands, among others, for spectrum allocation outside of auctions.

As part of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai’s) last consultation process in June, technology firms like Elon Musk’s Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and the Tata group’s Nelco had opposed the auctioning of satellite communication spectrum. Telecom operator Bharti pushed for allocations, while Reliance Jio called for auctions.

The Department of Telecommunications has granted Bharti Airtel-backed Eutelsat’s OneWeb and Jio Space, the satellite arm of Reliance Jio, the Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite Services (GMPCS) licence needed to offer satellite-based broadband service in India. Both companies are now vying for dominance in the segment.

In October, Jio successfully demonstrated its Jio SpaceFiber service, India’s first satellite-based gigabit speed broadband service at the India Mobile Congress, to previously inaccessible geographies within the country. Meanwhile, Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman of Bharti, has said OneWeb’s satellite communication service will be available in India soon.

Trai’s powers remain intact
The Bill has also dropped controversial provisions pertaining to Trai, which critics had argued would have substantially diluted the regulator’s powers and made it a rubber stamp of the government.

Earlier drafts had called for amending Section 11 of the Trai Act, 1997, which mandates the government to seek the regulator’s recommendations for the management of spectrum, licences, and matters related to new services.

The proposed legislation also bats for allowing senior private sector corporate executives in the role of Trai chairperson. It allows the hiring of non-government executives “if such person has at least 30 years of professional experience and has served as a member of the board of directors or a chief executive of a company in certain areas”. Business Standard

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