While technological innovation is inevitable in even the most local and traditional industries over time, public access to such innovation can be (and historically has been) gradual or limited, owing to various barriers – both actual and fabricated. In contrast, contemporary innovations in the telecommunications space seem to have set the stage for a rather more pervasive and rapid-paced pan-industrial transformation in coming years (often hailed as Industry 4.0), which looks likely to dispel geographical barriers (and threatens silo-mindsets and gatekeeping business practices) – especially, as the world’s major telecommunication entities/telecoms pivot to becoming technological enterprises.
Needless to say, the catalyst (and bedrock) of such upcoming transformation seems to be the advent of fifth-generation cellular technology (5G), through which telecoms propose to deliver a high-speed, low-latency hyper-connectivity (across enabled devices) to consumers worldwide over the next few years, particularly in combination with other emerging (and enabling) technologies – such as Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, multi-access computing, artificial intelligence (AI), artificial/virtual reality, and blockchain, to name a few.
2023 marks a promising year for the commercial deployment and (increased) penetration of 5G technology (first rolled out in South Korea in 2019) worldwide – effectively kick starting a major global telecommunications transformation – and India, in particular, seems keen to not only be a participant in the process, but also a major pioneer in bringing about the technological innovation it involves. To this end, on the entrepreneurial front, both the Indian government and private telecoms have worked together to bring about the recent launch of 5G (on October 1, 2022) in India; and seek to expand its reach across (rural and urban) India. In furtherance, some Indian telecoms claim to have indigenously developed 5G (and 4G) technology stacks, which the Indian government now seeks to export worldwide.
Thus, 2023 seemingly marks a particularly promising year for the Indian telecommunications sector, as the government’s interest in marketing 5G (and down-the-line – 6G and other) indigenous technological resources in the global market, combined with India’s presidency in G20 summit, lends to a razor-focus on the national telecommunications sector.
Notably, this focused approach of the Indian government is part of its larger interest in bringing about a larger digital/technological revolution in the country (as evident from the previous re-designation of the Telecom Commission under National Digital Communications Policy 2018 as well as launch of Digital India mission in 2015). While, to this end, the Indian government has been strategically partnering with, and investing in, the telecommunications industry for some time now, however, on a statutory and regulatory front, the government has also actively begun working on overhaul of extant telecommunication laws.
Amongst the series of (draft) legislations (and legislative amendments) that have been advanced (toward the Digital India mission) by the Indian government, the (brand-new) Telecommunications Bill, 2022 (Telecom Bill) is one of three principal legislations, which seem poised to constitute the future pillars of India’s proposed digital legal framework [the other two being the (latest iteration of) Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022 (DPDPB) and (upcoming) Digital India Act, not yet in the public domain, which is proposed to repeal/replace extant information technology/IT laws].
The Telecom Bill is monumental in nature since it will (at long last) repeal (outdated) legislation, such as the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885; the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933; and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950 (which constitute the extant legal framework governing the telecommunications sector); and establish a new regulatory/statutory regime. Existing rules/regulations framed under extant laws are, however, intended to survive (albeit these may be revised) under the ambit of the Telecom Bill (as and when enforced) in the future.
The current iteration of the Telecom Bill was prepared in close consultation with the Indian telecommunications industry, and the slew of changes proposed thereunder aim to bring about ease of doing business, accessing existing infrastructure, and deploying new infrastructure (and 5G technology) across India for telecoms (including through simplified license terms, slashed or waived government fees, prioritization of the right-of-way principle). Interestingly, it also provides for development of a regulatory sandbox (viz., a specialized legal ecosystem) by the Indian government to bolster technological innovation. The Telecom Bill is touted (in the mainstream media) to be enforced as soon as this year, following the monsoon session of the Indian parliament (between July and August 2023). However, it remains to be seen if this is actually the case, especially following the recent release of a consultation paper by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) (on January 30, 2023) seeking comments (and counter comments) from relevant stakeholders regarding the effective regulation of converged digital technologies and services. TRAI has expressly framed several queries thereunder for relevant stakeholders, including regarding whether extant legal, administrative, and licensing framework (which is disparate, as explained below) would suffice for the regulation, or would need to be harmonized and re-shaped for effective governance. Since the stipulated timeline for submission of comments from stakeholders is open until February 27, 2023 (and counter comments until March 13, 2023), it can be presumed that the consolidation and cognizance of such comments in the form of suitable legislation, could consequently take time.
Nonetheless, following completion of 5G deployment or enactment of Telecom Bill (whichever comes first) in India, the Indian government and public/private players alike are likely to back more and more R&D and technological integration in the telecommunications sector. While some of this may simply result from telecoms’ desire to improve quality/efficiency/delivery of services/offerings to an increasing consumer base (such as use of AI to reduce call drops or blockchain to reduce spam), the enactment of the Telecom Bill would, however, make technological integration or convergence (as per TRAI) inevitable, and even integral in India, for the purpose of compliance thereunder (including for reasons mentioned below).
For one, the Telecom Bill expands definition of telecommunication services to include internet and internet-based services (such as e-mail, video call, broadcasting, and even over-the-top/OTT communication services) and subjects them to a common regulatory/licensing regime. Even if one disregards the practical difficulties of subjecting diverse service providers (which can encompass entities such as Tata Sky, G-mail, Yahoo, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Twitter, and/or even M2M communication services like smartwatches/other smart devices) to similar regulations (and enforcing licensing/fee requirements upon internet-based services), it is pertinent to note that the entities providing such diverse services are already subject to differential statutory compliances, sectoral regulations and industry standards (including under IT and data laws and/or Reserve Bank of India and Cert-In regulations). Moreover, with increasing technological adoption, the multiplicity of regulations/standards imposed on telecoms, including in India, is likely to increase (as governments strive to make them accountable to consumers, including for internet-based or AI services). This is bound to cause regulatory overlap (including under DPDPB, as-and-when enforced) and a heavy compliance burden upon relevant entities – causing difficulties for smaller players, in particular.
Further, the Telecom Bill requires telecoms to undertake mandatory verification/identification of any person receiving telecommunication services. Thus, telecoms are poised to become custodians of tremendous amounts of consumer data upon completion of 5G deployment, whether due to increasing integration of technology in their services (such as multi-access computing/IoT, leading to processing/access of consumer data available on the cloud) or due to requirements under Telecom Bill (such as direct collection of personal/sensitive personal data of consumers for KYC verification). Since the data compliance/protection requirement(s) will only become more integral in time (vide DPDPB or similar national or international legislation), telecoms not only need to be mindful of obtaining due consent from consumers as regards their data, but also need to be active on a functional front (better to inspire consumer confidence in the first place) by putting in place all due cyber-security technological infrastructure (such as statutorily recognized and mandated ISO certification) as well.
In light of the above, a major transformation in functioning of telecoms (the so-called shift from teleco to techco) seems to be both necessary and eminent in India, and worldwide.
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