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Telecom Bill lacks clarity, some issues need to be addressed

The union government has come up with the draft telecom bill to fast-track telecom sector reforms. While the bill has lofty intentions of promoting ease of doing business and investment in the sector, there are several areas where the bill lacks clarity.

If implemented as is, the bill will create more problems for the industry rather than provide solutions.

Below are the eight things the telecom bill needs to address.

Definition of OTT: the government intends to regulate OTT apps, but has not defined what exactly is OTT in the draft bill.

The draft proposes that OTT communications services will be governed by telecom licence conditions, and that the government may include any other service that it may deem to be a telecommunication service.

Does this mean that services like Gmail, Facebook, etc., will also come under the ambit of OTT services? Do all who want to offer such services in India have to get a telecom license first?

Assignment of spectrum: the draft bill states that, “The central government shall assign spectrum to best subserve the common good and ensure widespread access to telecommunication services, and may notify a National Frequency Allocation Plan (NFAP) for the use and allocation of spectrum.’’

While backhaul spectrum will be allotted for satellite communications, there is no clarity on the mode of assignment of spectrum. Whether it will be given on a first-come-first-serve basis (administered spectrum), based on a lottery system, or by any other method, remains a mystery.

Write off telecom firms’ dues: the bill has provided a framework governing payment defaults by licensees, registered entities, or assignees, and allows the government to write-off of such amounts or part thereof.

Does this mean that the government has already assessed that some companies will default and wants the power to write off, in advance? And does it also mean that the companies need not pay the remaining licence fee (LF) and spectrum usage charge (SUC) dues any more?

Bankruptcy provisions: Though the intent of the bankruptcy provisions in the draft telecom bill is noble, the government will face huge difficulties in executing them. The bill also overrides provisions of the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code (IBC), which is another hairy tangle.

TRAI’s powers trimmed: The bill plans to confine TRAI’s powers to making recommendations only if requested by DoT. At present, TRAI has no powers of enforcement of its directives and can’t levy penalties on telecom companies. If this bill is passed, TRAI can’t even make suo moto recommendations, and will become defunct.

Power of search: an officer authorised by the union government may search any building, vehicle, vessel, aircraft, or place in which he has reason to believe that any unauthorised telecommunication network, or telecommunication equipment, or wireless equipment in respect of which an offence punishable under this (proposed) Act has been committed, is kept or concealed, and take possession of the same.

Offences and penalties: the bill intends to reduce the burden on telecom companies by reducing the penalties levied, but also seems to make most of the offences cognisable.

Which means that now the police no longer needs the Department of Telecom’s (DoT) permission to register a case for violations under this (proposed) Act, against the CEO of a telecom firm.

Duty of users: in the interest of the sovereignty, integrity, and security of India, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, or preventing incitement to an offence, no user shall furnish false particulars, suppress material information, or impersonate another person while establishing their identity for availing telecommunication services.

Fraud is already an offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Why does the government want to saddle the telecom bill with this? Moneycontrol

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