Telecom bill attempts spectrum, licensing, dispute resolution reforms

Telecom Bill

Telecom Bill (ILLUSTRATION: BINAY SINHA)


From the refarming of spectrum, unified authorisation for telecom services and more streamlined digital resolution rules, to a rebranded Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), Telecom Bill has introduced a firsts.


Tabled on Monday, the Bill has accepted long-standing demand by telecom companies to be able to repurpose spectrum bands to more efficient technologies and services. Currently, they can only utilise spectrum they have received, for the single use case the government had notified in the auctions.


In a key move, it has also allowed telecom firms to surrender spectrum if they are unutilised. However, the government will not return the amount already paid by the company, people in the know said.


While auctions remain the ‘preferred’ route of allocation for all spectrum, those utilised for government functions and security have been definitely kept out, as have been done for sectors where auctions are not feasible, they added. They pointed out that ~4,700 crore worth of spectrum has already been given out by the government.


The Bill has aimed to majorly cut down on the number of disputes in the sector by creating a tiered structure for settling disputes arising out of breach of terms and conditions. Two new layers — adjudicating officer and a designated committee of appeals — have been added in the dispute process, before parties reach the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal.


Sources said in the spirit of ease of doing business, the Bill has provided a voluntary undertaking mechanism. This will allow telcos to voluntarily disclose inadvertent lapses and facilitate compliance.


While the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) currently issues more than 100 different types of licences, registrations and permissions, the Bill has called for a simplified regime whereby the government will provide three sets of authorisation for telecom services, networks, and possession of radio equipment.


Departmental rules regarding these will be created after the Bill becomes law, sources said.


The existing USOF, funded out of levies on telcos, and administered by the DoT has now been renamed as Digital Bhart Nidhi. While the fund is the Centre’s primary source of capital for building telecom infrastructure Funds collected by the Digital Bharat Nidhi, it will now be first credited to the Consolidated Fund of India. “The Central Government may, if Parliament by appropriation made by law in this behalf so provides, credit such proceeds to the Digital Bharat Nidhi,” the Bill states.


Stakeholders happy 

 


Technology companies, which had rallied against the draft Bill’s proposal to extend regulations to OTTs, have welcomed the move. “We all look forward to working with all stakeholders to grow the digital ecosystem and internet economy of India,” an industry source from a major tech firm said.


Director General of the Indian Space Association (ISpA) AK Bhatt said: “This decision to allocate the satellite spectrum through a globally harmonised administrative method will pose a greater good for the nation and will spur growth in the nascent space sector.”


The Internet and Mobile Association of India, which represents nearly 600 internet firms, and startups, hailed the Bill as progressive. It said the time-tested distinction between telecom spectrum controlling entities (which are regulated) and spectrum using companies should be maintained.


Officials said a careful balancing has kept most stakeholders in the telecom ecosystem happy.


In a post on X, the Cellular Operators Association of India said the Bill paved the way for robust telecom networks through a well-defined Right of Way framework by clarifying that telecom networks shall be exempted from property taxes, levies, and duties, and by protecting arbitrary shutdowns without prior authorization mandate from an authorised officer.


The Digital Infrastructure Providers Association (DIPA) lauded the proposal to establish common ducts and cable corridors for streamlined network installation alongside highways and rail lines. “It will address long-standing issues for telecom infrastructure providers, including capping of charges, deemed approval, and deployment of telecom infrastructure on private property,” DIPA Director General T R Dua said.

First Published: Dec 18 2023 | 9:40 PM IST

The Telecom Bill, introduced recently, brings several significant changes to the telecom sector in India. One of the key provisions is the refarming of spectrum, allowing telecom companies to repurpose spectrum bands for more efficient technologies and services. Additionally, telecom firms are now allowed to surrender unused spectrum, although the government will not refund the amount already paid by the companies.

The Bill also aims to reduce disputes in the sector by introducing a tiered structure for settling disputes. Two new layers, an adjudicating officer and a designated committee of appeals, have been added to the dispute resolution process. The Bill also introduces a voluntary undertaking mechanism, allowing telcos to disclose inadvertent lapses and facilitate compliance.

In terms of licensing and permissions, the Bill calls for a simplified regime where the government provides three sets of authorizations for telecom services, networks, and possession of radio equipment. Departmental rules for these authorizations will be created after the Bill becomes law.

The existing Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), which funds telecom infrastructure, has been renamed Digital Bhart Nidhi. The funds collected will now be first credited to the Consolidated Fund of India, with the option to credit them to the Digital Bharat Nidhi if approved by Parliament.

Stakeholders in the telecom industry have reacted positively to the Bill. Technology companies, which had concerns about the extension of regulations to over-the-top (OTT) platforms, have welcomed the move. The Indian Space Association (ISpA) sees the allocation of satellite spectrum through a globally harmonized administrative method as beneficial for the nation’s space sector. The Internet and Mobile Association of India and the Cellular Operators Association of India have also expressed their support for the Bill.

Overall, the Telecom Bill introduces significant changes to spectrum utilization, dispute resolution, licensing, and the USOF. It aims to streamline processes and create a more conducive environment for the telecom industry in India.,

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