Telecom Bill 2023: Lok Sabha gives assent, provides for govt control of communication network in emergency

In a significant move today,  the Lok Sabha has cleared the Telecom Bill 2023, laying the foundation for some far-reaching changes and even the transformation of the sector. The bill allows the government to temporarily take control of telecom services in the interest of national security. Not just that, in a huge move away from yesteryears, it also provided a non-auction route for the allocation of satellite spectrum. Significantly, the bill also allows the Centre to take possession of a telecom network in case of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety. It also provides for stopping transmission and even intercepting of messages in case of public emergency, in the interest of the public, to prevent incitement for committing offence. “The bill will promote structural reforms in the telecom sector,” said Union Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. 

When Action Can Be Taken

The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, as it is known officially, was passed by a voice vote after a short debate. The Telecom Bill was piloted by Vaishnaw in the House. 

According to the bill, the action on its basis can be taken if certain conditions are met. “On the occurrence of any public emergency, including disaster management, or in the interest of public safety, the central government or a state government or any officer specially authorised in this behalf by the central government or a state government, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, by notification—take temporary possession of any telecommunication service or telecommunication network from an authorised entity”.

According to the bill, the press messages of correspondents accredited to the Centre or state governments shall not be intercepted or detained unless their transmission has been prohibited under rules applicable for public emergency, public order etc.

Allocation of spectrum: Jio and Vodafone Arguments Stand Rejected 

The Telecom Bill provides for the allocation of spectrum to satellite communications companies through the administrative method, Vaishnaw said.

The provisions of the bill, it may be mentioned, are in line with the demand of global satellite services companies and reject the argument made by domestic telecom players Jio and Vodafone Idea for allocation of spectrum for commercial use through the auction route.

As per the bill, “the central government shall assign spectrum for telecommunication through auction except for entries listed in the First Schedule for which assignment shall be done by administrative process.”

The first schedule has 19 cases for which spectrum will be assigned through the administrative process including global mobile personal communication by satellites, national long-distance and international long-distance services, mobile satellite services, VSAT, In-Flight and maritime connectivity, BSNL and MTNL.

Authorisation Required

Once the bill is approved by Parliament, the companies will require authorisation to start providing telecom services instead of licences that are issued at present.

The bill also provides protective measures for telecom infrastructure and reinforces provision for smooth roll-out of networks especially optical fibre cables.

The Centre has also proposed the exemption of telecom networks installed on any property from any claims, encumbrances, liquidation or the like, relating to such property.

Termination of spectrum assignment

The bill provides for the termination of spectrum assignment if the government determines that the assigned spectrum has remained unutilised without any sufficient reasons.

Cap on Penalties

The government has proposed a cap of ₹5 crore on penalties imposed on telecom operators which was ₹50 crore earlier per circle implying a maximum penalty of around ₹1,100 crore on a telecom company.

Issue of SIMs and Penalties

The bill makes it mandatory for companies to issue SIMs after capturing verifiable biometric data of the applicant to prevent misuse of telecom resources.

The bill has a provision for a jail term of up to three years or a fine of up to ₹50 lakh for a person obtaining SIM or other telecom resource through fraud, cheating, personation, the minister said.

The government has proposed to mandate sector regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to share its reply on clarification sought from it within 30 days.

Vaishnaw said that the bill would repeal two laws, including 138-year-old Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.

Sectoral Transformation and Benefits

“The bill will usher in the biggest reforms in the sector … Now there will be one simple authorisation instead of 100 licences,” he said, adding there is a provision for four-tier dispute resolution which will help in reducing litigation in the sector.

“It will also strengthen the legal system for dealing with cyber-security issues…There will also be provision for regulatory sandbox which will encourage innovation,” he added.

Talking about the spectrum, the minister stressed that it is “a natural resource which has to be used judiciously.”

Missing Opposition

The process was carried out with most of the Opposition MPs being absent from the Lok Sabha following their suspension. Vaishnaw regretted that the opposition did not participate in the debate and “they ran away”.

Industry Reaction

The industry body, Broadband India Forum (BIF), in a statement, said its executive council, at its recent meeting, praised the bill, and termed it a historic milestone and extremely progressive. “The EC was of the view that this was a historic milestone in the annals of Indian Telecom and truly a giant leap forward for the Bharat Digital Economy,” it said.

It added that the bill is consumer-centric and investor-friendly, and will propel the growth of the sector. It also averred that the bill will yield many consumer benefits, besides boosting investor confidence.

BIF said the bill brings clarity on key issues, including Trai’s power and functions. It also noted that the bill consolidates different laws of 1885, 1933, and 1950and will help achieve increased acceleration of internet/broadband penetration.

It also indicated the benefits will stretch into the realm of space too as it will incentivise the exponential growth of space startups segment.

On his part, PTI quoted BIF President T V Ramachandran as saying that the Indian Telecommunications Bill 2023 will serve as a strong enabler for the larger digital ecosystem and, in particular, the innovative OTT apps and satellite sectors in the country.

Meta Platforms

Yesterday, Meta India Vice President Sandhya Devanathan said that the company welcomes all progressive regulations balancing user safety and innovation. She said, “…we welcome all regulations that balance user safety, providing safe internet along with innovation and growing the economy of the country.”

She added, “This is a very progressive Government when it comes to regulations…it is signalling their support to continue to invest in digital economy”.

Devanathan was speaking during a conference announcing ONDC-Meta partnership to help small businesses unlock power of digital commerce.

(With PTI inputs)

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