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Oops! Telecom Bill stepping on MIB’s toes

The information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry has objected to the inclusion of ‘broadcasting services’ and ‘over-the-top (OTT) communication services’ as part of ‘telecommunication services’ in the draft telecommunication Bill, which was released last week.

Sources said that I&B ministry officials have written to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) objecting to this encroachment of its domain and that, too, without any prior consultations. It has sought clarifications from the DoT on the matter.

Currently, the licensing and policymaking part of telecommunication services is the domain of DoT, while the same functions with regard to broadcasting is with the I&B ministry. However, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) is the common regulator for the two sectors.

The draft telecommunication Bill has defined broadcasting services as a form of telecommunication service intended to be received by the general public either directly or indirectly. “Telecommunication services means service of any description (including broadcasting services, electronic mail, voice mail, voice, video and data and communication services, over-the-top (OTT) communication services) which is made available to users by telecommunication…” the draft states.

Sources said DoT seems to have come to such a broad definition, including all forms of communication on a simplistic assumption — that since voice, data and broadcast services are available through telecom operators nowadays, the licensing and policymaking powers with regard to broadcasting should also vest with it.

According to sources, normally if any changes are proposed in the rules of allocation of business between different ministries and departments of government, inter-ministerial consultations are held. However, in this case DoT did not follow any such norm.

Government observers also expressed surprise at such a lapse on part of DoT since last year in February, the powers to regulate intermediaries (social media) such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter etc, and over-the-top players like Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+Hotstar as well as digital media were clearly divided between the ministry of electronics & IT (MeitY) and I&B.

The regulation of social media under the new IT Rules which were notified on February 25, 2021, comes under MeitY, while OTT platforms and digital media come under I&B. Prior to this division, both fell under the domain of MeitY.

The draft telecommunication Bill has also talked about bringing OTTs and intermediaries under licensing and regulation, which has been objected to by their industry association, Broadband India Forum (BIF). The contention of I&B is that the issue of bringing them under licensing and regulation are domains on which it needs to deliberate and take a decision, not DoT.

“Some of the provisions of the draft Indian Telecommunications Bill 2022, unfortunately appear to be prohibitive rather than facilitating/enabling for the larger digital ecosystem in the country,” BIF president TV Ramachandran said in a statement late last week.

Majority of the OTT communication services ecosystem is being developed by a number of startups, SMEs, members from academia and professionals, BIF said. “Subjecting such services to licensing could harm the nascent startups ecosystem, leading to constricting the PM’s flagship mission of startup India,” it added. Financial Express

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