The proposed new telecom law is meant to protect consumers and bring about stability in the industry, Union minister for electronics and information technology Ashwini Vaishnaw said on Friday, as he introduced Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022, which was floated for public feedback earlier in the week.
The law is meant to replace the colonial-era Telegraph Act of 1885 and a clutch of other related laws from before Independence, which have till now been at the heart of telecommunication regulations along with a patchwork of subordinate rules and legislation.
“The premise and the most fundamental promise of this bill is to protect users,” Vaishnaw said on Friday, and added that the law “promises certainty in the sector — and that will attract investments”.
Earlier in the day, during the briefing on the draft bill, the minister underscored how the legal framework was drawn at a time of technologies that are now obsolete.
“Today, the difference between a voice call and a data call has disappeared. We have to protect the rights of users who are using services such as FaceTime, WhatsApp and other such services,” he said.
The process for the new framework will likely be completed in another 6-8 months, he added.
As it brings regulations up to speed with modern technologies, the new bill includes a broad new set of definitions for what constitutes a telecommunication, a telecom network and a telecom service.
It, according to the government, also creates a licensing framework that is consistent with global approaches, and contains provisions that will allow the government to step in and ensure consumers are not affected if companies face financial distress or are penalised.
According to Vaishnaw, user protection was among the core principles, along with regulatory certainty, and encouraging innovation and employment.
He added that the bill provides for checks and balances and to ensure continuity of already applicable terms will be applicable in particular cases. “We should not look at this bill in isolation, it is part of the larger framework that including the data protection bill and digital India act,” he said.
In a presentation that he made, he outlined that mergers and acquisitions will, under the new law, require mere intimation, and in the case of defaults, a special framework will be put in place.
The draft has proposed that in case there is default in payment by a licensee, registered entity or assignee, the government can determine if there are extraordinary circumstances of financial stress, consumer interest or a need to maintain competition or reliability and continuity of services, and can defer, convert into shares, write-off or provide relief, in full or in part, the amount that is due.
For mergers and acquisitions, the new law proposes the need for companies to only inform the government and conform to relevant corporate laws.
Some of the new definitions have led to some questions regarding future licensing obligations. One of these is the classification of over-the-top (OTT) communication applications, which will include services such as WhatsApp.
Vaishnaw said the definition of services that it will cover are meant to provide a legal framework to ensure the law’s main objectives are “effectively achieved”. “This will be a light touch mechanism, with a graded curve to punish those violate the provisions in keeping with the severity of the violation,” he said.
Experts said the measures to ease distress in the industry were noteworthy.
“The bill provides that in case of default payments, the government may in the extraordinary circumstance allow write off, deferment, conversion of the amount into shares or full or partial relief through a special framework. This could be done in case the entities are unable to pay due to financial stress, consumer interest, maintaining competition in the sector, or reliability. The bill also proposes that in similar circumstance, the government can also waive off entry fees, license fees or any other fees. This would help the debt-ridden industry to make their case to the government for waiving pending payments. The telecom industry has a cumulative debt of ₹6 lakh crore and this provision would help in easing off some of that debt,” said Kazim Rizvi, founder of tech policy think tank, The Dialogue.
The bill has been circulated for public feedback. “Public suggestions have been sought on the bill and it will grow and evolve as we receive them,” the union minister said. “I see a timeline of 6-8 months before this bill can be implemented,” he added.
Rizvi added that the bill also proposes the creation of regulatory sandbox to enable innovations and development of this sector. “This is a forward-looking step for this sector given the 5G is set to roll out anytime this year. The bill also replaces the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) with the Telecommunication Development Fund which focuses on enhancing R&D and skill training and supporting pilot projects and new technologies,” he said. Hindustan Times