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Draft Telecom Bill cannot be allowed to dilute TRAI’s power

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) will approach the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to present its case against the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) move to substantially dilute its powers in the draft telecom Bill. The Authority is also in the process of writing to the DoT highlighting its opposition to several clauses in the new Bill, which virtually make it a rubber stamp of the government.

According to sources, the telecom regulator plans to make a detailed presentation to the PMO showing how investor confidence and ease of doing business would get hurt if TRAI’s powers are whittled down. Three main areas — tariffs, quality of service standards and dispute resolution mechanism — where the government has encroached upon the powers of the regulator as well as the appellate tribunal are likely to figure in the presentation.

The TRAI is of the view that there would be adverse ramifications if the Bill gets enacted as a law in its current format, especially with regard to regulation of tariff – an area where the government currently has no power. The Bill proposes that along with the regulator, even the government would have the power with regard to tariffs and can overrule any move taken by the regulator. For instance, any tariff order issued by the TRAI will have to be suitably amended if the government takes a stance which is diametrically opposite to that of the regulator. This would basically make the government a licensor, an operator (it owns BSNL/MTNL), as well as a regulator.44

For instance, today TRAI has put telecom tariffs under forbearance, meaning telecom operators are free to devise their tariff packages and implement them so far they file the same with the regulator within a week of implementation. If the TRAI finds anything objectionable, it directs the operator concerned to make suitable changes, but operators do not need its approval before implementing any new tariff package. However, under the draft Bill, if the government feels that the policy on forbearance needs to be changed, it can go ahead and do it and the TRAI would have to abide by it.

“This would completely erode investor confidence as there would be no predictability in the regulatory regime. The TRAI takes measures after an open consultative process, but the Bill has not laid down any clauses which mandates the government also to do the same,” a source said.

The government has also encroached upon the regulator’s powers on laying down quality of standards of service and monitoring it. Under the Bill, the government will also have the powers to do the same and if there’s a divergence, the government’s view would prevail. So subjects like call drops, spam messages and calls, etc, will move to the government’s domain.

The third area is with regard to resolution of disputes where the powers of the Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) get redundant. Currently, TDSAT is the first body which looks into any dispute between two telecom operators, telecom operators and the government, and between operators, the government and as well as the regulator. Only once the TDSAT has passed orders on such disputes can they be appealed in the Supreme Court. The draft Bill changes this by empowering the government to come up with alternate dispute resolution mechanism.

“If the Central government is of the opinion that any dispute, or class of disputes, may be resolved more appropriately by arbitration, mediation or other process of dispute resolution, then the Central government may establish a suitable mechanism for resolution of such disputes,” reads the clause in this regard.

As reported earlier, the draft Bill also seeks to amend Section 11 of the TRAI Act, 1997, which lays down that on measures like licensing, new services and spectrum management, where the powers vest with the government, for any new measure or changes, the government first needs to seek the recommendations of the TRAI. If the Bill becomes a law in its current format, this would not be mandatory on the government’s part. It may or may not seek the regulator’s recommendations, thus eroding the transparency which was built in the process of policymaking. Indian Express

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