The government approved the National Digital Communication Policy 2018 on 26th September. At the outset, I would say that the policy looks great on paper! It has all the ingredients required for establishment of a digital communication infrastructure and services to meet the digital strategic objectives by 2022. In line with objectives, the three missions – Connect India, Propel India, and Secure India are laudable and focused further to define policy goals and strategies covering all that is required to ensure that India not only strengthens but leads the next phase of digitization in the world!
However, what will help achieve the above objectives is the policy execution on the ground. The success of this policy down the years will be measured by how many road blocks were cleared to achieve the objectives emphasized in the policy. Also it will be important to resolve some of the ongoing issues, which have plagued the industry in its last two decades of journey, in order to take off and propel the mission set in the policy for the next decade.
Some of the issues are highlighted below:
- The telecom industry still has one of the highest taxes (in excess of 34 percent) in the world. The policy does talk about review of levies and fees including LF and SUC, definition of AGR, and rationalization of USO levy; however, no timeline for the same has been mentioned. Given the financial state of industry, this task should be taken up on a most urgent basis. A fragile telco eco system may be the biggest deterrent to the next five years of digital growth
- For the broadband initiatives like Bharat Net, Gram Net, Nagar Net, and Jan wi-fi, the funding route is identified as USOF and public private partnerships. While policy is already talking about reduction in USO levy as per point 1 above, the public private partnerships have generally not worked in India in the infrastructure space. Therefore a clear prioritization of these initiatives will be required. Bharat Net and Gram Net could be pursued since lots of investments on these programs have already been done. Do we really need to start investing in Nagar Net and Jan wi-fi? May be, we need to just give some bold incentives to the industry to carry out such programs, in the form of adjustment in license fee for the amount invested in these schemes
- While the creation of the National Fiber Authority is a welcome step, the scope of the authority needs to be defined clearly. Also we need to look at hiring from the industry in order to create the right balance and work environment. Is it possible to create a GST council kind of authority with states’ involvement where issues like ROW can be resolved quickly. Today while we have a ROW policy, states do not follow this in letter and spirit
- On 24th September, DOT moved SC to ask TSPs to increase their respective limits of BGs submitted to cover for the AGR penalties. On 25th September, the DOT also announced special audits of TSPs, starting from year 2011. Both these issue are linked to AGR definition and adjustment on AGR. Industry would have really appreciated DOT’s move to the Supreme Court to start immediate hearing on the AGR issue so that this long-pending issue can be resolved at the earliest. This would have shown a very positive intent by the government
- Chapter 2 of the policy Propel India is a refreshing read. It covers all the topics from reduction of levies, ease of business, simplifying spectrum processes, the rollout of 5G applications, IoT, and even the topics like AI and big data. If we can achieve 50–70 percent of all the intent mentioned here, it will go a long way to achieve the vision of the National Digital Communication Policy 2018. Overall this is a fine document. But people will judge this by what we achieve in the next five years down the line by the actions on the ground and not by mere intent.