President of India, Draupadi Murmu has signed the Telecommunications Act, 2023, the Union government’s long-discussed successor to the Telegraph Act of 1885 that has till now governed telecom services in India. While it prioritises user protection, it also extends powers to the government to intercept communications.
The legislation was cleared by the Lok Sabha on December 20, and by Rajya Sabha on December 21.
Following the presidential assent, rules to enact different Sections of the Act will be required. It is not yet specified when the Telecom Act’s subordinate rules will be prepared and notified, previous notifications — such as licences issued to telcos — remain valid.
It shall come into force on such date as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, appoint and different dates may be appointed for different provisions of this Act and any reference in any such provision to the commencement of this Act shall be construed as a reference to the commencement of that provision.
The structural reforms envisaged under The Telecommunications Act, 2023 aim to streamline what has so far been a complex licensing system in the telecom sector and instead ushers-in a simple authorisation mechanism. It replaces over 100 types of licences with authorisation focussed on three aspects — providing telecommunication services, operating and expanding telecommunication networks and possessing radio equipment.
Telecom operators have been mandated to capture verifiable biometrics data when they issue a new connection. The Telecommunications Act gives legislative backing to resolve disputes between consumers and telecoms through an online dispute resolution mechanism established by the centre. It also addresses issues of continuity of telecom service which may help in cases where a telecom operator for some legal-commercial or technical reason is unable to provide services.
The Act paves the way for administrative (non-auction) allocation of spectrum for satellite broadband services. It also has provision to take back unutilised spectrum before the expiry of permit to use it. However, it does not provide for refund of spectrum price paid by entities for its allocation.
Further, it brings in a state government-led dispute resolution structure, where the district magistrate and the district judge will decide right of way issues that are related to permits for telecom network roll out.
The government has brought in procurement of telecom equipment from a trusted source within the new Act, which was earlier being governed through National Security Directive on Telecommunication Sector.
It also significantly lowers the penalty cap on telecom operators to Rs 5 crore; it was earlier as high as Rs 50 crore in a telecom circle level and Rs 1,100 crore at pan-India level.
To ease the legal dispute process, it also has a provision for voluntary disclosure of lapses by a telecom company and to correct the mistake by paying applicable penalties.
It governs a whole host of services, including over-the-top services such as WhatsApp, Telegram and email services like Gmail through a broad definition for ‘telecommunication’ which is given as “transmission, emission or reception of any messages, by wire, radio, optical or other electro-magnetic systems, whether or not such messages have been subjected to rearrangement, computation or other processes by any means in the course of their transmission, emission or reception.” This vast definition entails that every internet app within India has to comply with the law.
The Digital Personal Data Protection Act, an entirely fresh legislation on online privacy is awaited.