News & Analysis

Draft Telecom Bill Raises a Few Hackles

Minister attempts to assuage the concerns over diluting TRAI powers and issues related to OTT communication services

A draft of the Telecom Bill 2022 appears to be generating some heat that has now made the government extend the deadline for public comments till October 30. They are also meeting some industry representatives to try and smoothen ruffled feathers over two issues – dilution of TRAI powers and confusion around what denotes an OTT communication service. 

Of course, some industry experts argue that the very nature of the draft bill doesn’t change from the top-down colonial approach that it seeks to replace. Readers would recall that the new Telecom Bill seeks to replace the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act (1933), the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act of 1950 and the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885. 


What’s the real problem?

Telecom consultant Mahesh Uppal argues that instead of reducing government’s role in the multi-player market, the Bill actually seeks to enlarge it as opposed to the global trend of moving government out of the business. He also says that in the process, the draft bill curtails the authority of TRAI at a time when its peers are revising regulations to deploy new transformational technologies to be deployed easily. In other words, the draft bill pushes the button on increased compliance where the world is going in the other direction. 


Smoothing the ruffled feathers 

On its part, the government has tried to assuage these doubts with communications minister Ashwini Vaishnaw once again bringing up the matter that it was a draft bill and changes can and would be made. He told ET that the OTT communication services would only witness light touch regulations that safeguards the consumer’s interests over data privacy and cyber fraud. 

He also gave a shout out to those worried about diluting the powers of TRAI and said the government would be announcing a series of procedural reforms including licensing rules that will generate interest among companies to invest upwards of Rs.2.5 lakh crore in the 5G-related services to generate more than 80,000 jobs. 

Vaishnaw said besides the issues shared by the industry around the Bill, the government would also remain committed to retain the authority of TRAI. He said the DoT has taken note of the issues and would tread carefully to ensure that the atmosphere remains investor friendly. 


TRAI the regulator or just a recommender? 

In terms of the objections associated with TRAI, a key issue relates to the deletion of some provisions from Section 11 (1) of the TRAI Act that allowed checks and balances through a consultative process between the DoT and the industry watchdog. Experts feel that this removes the regulatory safeguards that could make TRAI just a recommendation body. 

Vaishnaw hasn’t actually acknowledged these fears but did state that the government would be meeting the legal fraternity as well as the industry to discuss specifics and confirmed that the deadline for public comments would be extended in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to this crucial infrastructure industry. 


WhatsApp and Telegram see red

The other contentious issue related to the definition of telecom services, which resulted in apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram falling under its purview. Communication apps are fearing that there would be a bout of over-regulation that could severely curtain innovations. They are also not wary of pointing out that the services are already governed under the IT Act.

The government is taking pains to explain that these players needn’t fear as the only area where the Draft Telecom bill would address relates to user protection around cyber fraud. The minister said OTT-based callers were currently engaging in cybercrimes such as phishing without any fear of the law as they remain anonymous. 

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