Telecom Bill 2023: Powers to the government to take over, manage or suspend any or all telecommunication services

The latest version of the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, introduced in the Lok Sabha on Monday includes significant changes in the allocation of spectrum for satellite broadband services, wherein spectrum for such services can be assigned at administered prices without any auction.

Other critical provisions in the bill include much-contested powers for the government to take over, manage, or suspend any or all telecommunication services or networks in the interest of national security, while it does not mention over-the-top (OTT) services in its definition of telecom services and retains powers given to the telecom regulator. For the post of Chairperson of TRAI, a professional from the private sector can be appointed if such person has at least 30 years of professional experience.

In Chapter II, Clause 4(4), the bill specifies that certain services have been exempted from auction, and spectrum for the same will be assigned through an “administrative process.” These services listed in the First Schedule include, among others, “Certain satellite-based services such as teleports, television channels, direct to home, headends in the sky, digital satellite news gathering, very small aperture terminals, global mobile personal communication by satellites, national long distance, international long distance, and mobile satellite service in L and S bands.”

“The spectrum for such services will be provided through TRAI-decided reserve prices administratively to all the interested players,” said sources.

This is a major win for companies such as Bharti’s OneWeb, which was advocating for administrative allocation. Others, like Reliance’s Jio Satellite Communications, Elon Musk’s Starlink, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, will be competing in this space.

Consumer protection

The bill also proposes more consumer protection, including harsh rules for punishing pesky callers, an online dispute redressal mechanism (ODR), and also mandating biometric verifications for new SIM/connections by consumers.

It has also made provision for the government to take back unused or unutilised spectrum from the operators, whether government or private. However, the bill has also done away with rules and guidelines for OTT players, saying they will come under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), either in new rules or the new IT Act.

Apart from that, the government is also putting strict measures on the manufacture, import, distribution, and sale of telecommunication equipment; telecommunication security, including identification, analysis, and prevention of intrusion in telecommunication services and telecommunication networks; cyber security for telecommunication services and telecommunication networks; and encryption and data processing in telecommunication.

Critical infrastructure

Telecom players or tower companies will also get better treatment for their infrastructure, and apart from the government’s support for right of way (RoW), any person who fails to comply with the provisions or causes damage to any telecommunication network or is likely to interrupt or interfere with telecommunication services, a District Magistrate, on the application of the facility provider, can take strict action.

“It will be defined as a critical infrastructure that cannot be destroyed or damaged by anybody. There will be serious punishment,” the source said.

On the contentious clause regarding interception, the source said, “Interception is the contentious thing, and the government has kept exactly the same provisions, which we had earlier since 1996, followed as per the Supreme Court judgement…just that the word ‘Telegraph’ has been replaced with ‘Telecommunication’.

Reacting to the bill, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said that such positive measures will significantly accelerate the delivery of digital connectivity benefits to every citizen of India. “It paves the way for a well-defined Right of Way (RoW) framework, encompassing granting RoW in a non-discriminatory manner, clarifying that telecom networks shall be exempted from property taxes, levies, cesses, fees, and duties, and protecting arbitrary shutdowns/ sealings without prior authorisation,” SP Kochhar, Director General, COAI, said.

According to TR Dua, Director-General at the Digital Infrastructure Providers Association (DIPA), the bill aims to ensure the continuity of authorisation and provides for the continuation of rules, guidelines, and administrative orders issued under the existing regime.

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