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BIF said curtailing on TRAI powers in Telecom bill might be a wrong step

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Ashwini Vaishnaw
Ashwini Vaishnaw, Telecom Minister | Image : Twitter/@AshwiniVaishnaw

The government’s proposal to make changes in the Trai Act by deleting provisions enabling the telecom regulator to make recommendations for new licences and services, among others, may prove to be a backward step, digital think-tank Broadband India Forum said on Friday.

The government in the draft has proposed to delete several provisions under Section 11 of the Trai Act which give it power to make recommendations to the government for telecom licences and services.

Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, during his presentation on the draft bill, had said it proposes to simplify and bring clarity around the licensing framework.

“Lot of simplification has been done in terms and conditions of license. At present the terms and condition… is so complex that it requires a very good legal brain to understand them. To simplify those norms, a legal framework is required. That legal framework has been brought here. Its corollary comes from a series of provisos of Trai,” Vaishnaw said.

He said even for starting new service, there was a proviso in the Trai Act which mandated the need for recommendation of the regulator.

“The issues that were arising due to lack of clarity in the system, around what needs to be done in a particular sector or service, have now been clarified. For telecom network and service it will be licence, registration for telecom infrastructure and authorisation for wireless equipment. It has been clearly defined,” the minister said.

Broadband India Forum (BIF), whose members include companies like Amazon, Google, Meta, Indus Towers etc, said by curtailing the powers of the Trai, the authority will be reduced to one with extremely limited role and powers.

This does not bode well for the sector to have a neutral and independent approach towards facilitating progressive and positive growth for the entire ecosystem, it noted.

BIF President T V Ramachandran said in a statement that some of the provisions of the draft Indian Telecommunications Bill 2022, unfortunately appear to be prohibitive rather than facilitating or enabling the larger digital ecosystem in the country.

“The provisions seem to take us back to the pre-1997 era by diluting the powers of the Regulator viz. Section 11(1) of TRAI Act. This could lead to damage of investor confidence and undermining of the independence of the Regulatory Authority, owing to deletion of provisions which enable proper checks and balances,” Ramachandran said.

BIF said the Draft Telecom Bill provisions propose to take away Trai’s statutory independence, and seek to make it subservient to the government.

“The implications of the draft Bill may prove to be a backward step, taking us to the pre-1997 era, by diluting the critical role and powers of the independent regulator,” BIF said.

The think-tank further said the draft bill provisions for the government to take back spectrum after 5 years or withdraw existing exemptions through mere notifications, without any consultation or due process, could adversely impact the investor sentiment and investment potential in the sector.

BIF said the telecom bill’s proposal to bring Over-The-Top (OTT) apps, which provide internet based call and messaging service, under licensing regime will kill innovation and stymie the GDP growth.

“They (OTT Apps) are the backbone of the Digital Economy and by including such services as telecommunication services and subjecting them to Licensing, it could stifle the entire socio-economic ecosystem, kill innovation and stymie the GDP growth.

“Majority of the OTT Communication Services ecosystem is being developed by a number of startups, SMEs, members from academia and professionals. Subjecting such services to Licensing could harm the nascent startups ecosystem,” BIF said.

It said the draft bill has insufficient clarity around mode of assignment of shared spectrum for satellite communications applications, unlicensed spectrum for public Wi-Fi use or usage of unlicensed spectrum for innovative applications.

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