COAI terms draft telecom bill ‘reformative’

Mobile phone companies Thursday said that the draft Indian Telecommunications 2022 Bill floated by the government was “reformative”.

“In keeping with the recent trend of reformative policy making by the government, this draft Indian Telecommunication bill is another milestone step to develop a modern and future-ready legal framework in telecommunication. We are studying the newly drafted Bill and will share our comments with the Government in due course of time,” SP Kochhar, director general of Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), said in a statement.

COAI represents India’s three private operators – Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea.

Late Wednesday, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) released the much-awaited draft Indian Telecommunications 2022 Bill, which once formalised into an Act of Parliament will govern the sector.

As per the draft Bill, spectrum can be assigned through an auction or administrative process, depending on the requirements. It has proposed provisions to waive fees, charges and penalties of a company if it is required to protect the interest of consumers or ensure fair competition.

The draft has also enlarged the definition of telecommunication services, bringing over-the-top (OTT) services such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram, satellite-based communication services, Internet and broadband services, in-flight and maritime connectivity services, etc., under the ambit of the proposed law. The draft document states that in case of insolvency, spectrum assigned to an entity shall revert to government control.

The draft Bill has been put up for public consultation and stakeholders can send their comment till October 20.

“Continuing on the path of reforms, the draft bill proposes a comprehensive framework to further enhance ease of doing business. Clarity has been provided on spectrum allocation, restructuring, insolvency, and user protection among others. OTT is proposed to be considered as a telecom service, which may see some developments,” Jaideep Ghosh, chief operating officer of legal firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co., said in a statement.

As per the draft, “the central government may assign spectrum for telecommunication through auction, administrative process for governmental functions or purposes in view of public interest or necessity”.

In case of a default in payment by a licensee, and it has been determined that there were extraordinary circumstances, including financial stress, consumer interest, maintaining competition in the sector, reliability issues or a need to ensure continued supply of telecommunication services, the government can change the payment timeframe for such amounts, or decide about conversion of part or all the amounts payable into shares, write-off of such amounts, or provide relief from the payment.

The government has the right to waive, in part or full, any fee, including entry fee, license fee or registrations fees; interest; additional charges or penalty or damages payable by a licensee.

It can also grant exceptions from the provisions of the proposed Act or rules to a licensee.

ET in its edition dated September 20 reported elements of the draft Bill around waiver of fees and penalties. On September 12, it reported about OTT communications likely coming under the ambit of telecom.

As per the draft, in case of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, the central or state governments, or any officer specially authorised in this behalf, can direct that any message or class of messages shall not be transmitted, or shall be intercepted or detained or disclosed to the officer mentioned in such orders.

The government will also have the powers to suspend any communication.

In the event of war or national security issues, the government can take over the control and management of, or suspend the operation of, any or all of telecommunication services. In such an event, it can also entrust a government authority to manage the services.

According to the proposed Bill, a licensee undergoing insolvency proceedings can carry on with the operations, if it does not default on the payment of any dues under the licence and complies with any additional or modified terms and conditions of licence.

If such a licensee is unable to comply with these requirements, then the assigned spectrum will revert to the control of the government.

The government may permit the sharing, trading, leasing and surrender of spectrum assigned subject to the terms and conditions, including applicable fees or charges, as may be prescribed.

In case of breach of licence conditions, the telecom department can revoke the licence, registration, authorisation or assignment, as well as impose a penalty. The penalty will depend on the severity of the offence.

Any suspension, curtailment, revocation or variation may be reversed if the substantial violation is remedied to the satisfaction of the central government.

The government may establish an alternative dispute resolution mechanism for the sector.

The mandate of the universal service obligation fund has been widened to include provisioning of telecom services to urban areas, R&D, skill development, support of pilot projects, etc.

Ghosh said that repurposing the Universal Service Obligation (USO) fund as Telecommunication Development Fund to provide funding for R&D and skill development is much welcome. “The original intent of the USO fund has diminished over time considering the enhanced coverage of telecom services across rural and suburban India.”