Omnibus Telecom Bill introduced in LS to replace 138-year old law; allows interception, right of way, spectrum harmonisation

Aims to replace British-era Telegraph Act, 1885; authorisations to replace licensing; lawful interception, surveillance to remain; biometric authentication of customers, spectrum guidelines introduced

December 18, 2023 11:16 pm | Updated December 19, 2023 08:40 am IST - NEW DELHI

Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw introduces The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, in Lok Sabha on December 18, 2023. 
Photo: Screenshot from YouTube/Sansad TV

Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw introduces The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, in Lok Sabha on December 18, 2023. Photo: Screenshot from YouTube/Sansad TV

The Telecommunications Bill, 2023 introduced in the Lok Sabha on Monday proposes the first comprehensive rewrite of telecommunications law in 138 years, consolidating spectrum, right of way, and dispute resolution, among other aspects, into one fresh statute. A law in the making for years, it will replace the Telegraph Act of 1885.

Instead of the licensing regime of the past, the new Bill text refers only to ‘authorisations’ that will have to be obtained by telecom operators and other providers of telecom services, which have been defined as the “transmission… of any messages, by wire, radio, optical or other electro-magnetic systems, whether or not… subjected to rearrangement, computation or other processes”. A person familiar with the thinking behind the Bill insisted that it would not extend to online services like WhatsApp. Authorisations are also required for setting up a telecom network, and for “possession of radio equipment”. 

The Bill requires telecom customers to undergo “biometric authentication”, the form of which will be notified later. The person familiar with the thinking behind the Bill said that this was put in place to curb the menace of spam calls and messages.

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Spectrum refarming, harmonising

The Bill folds in many of the amendments and structures that telecom regulation and administration have accumulated in the decades since the Telegraph Act passed. For instance, the National Frequency Allocation Plan, an administrative document that sets aside airwaves for different purposes, has now been given statutory force. Auctions will now be the “preferred” mode for allotment of spectrum, while administrative allotment will be used in cases like satellite TV and broadband. 

The Bill also has provisions allowing telcos to “refarm” spectrum, or use it for other technologies than initially intended when they bought it. For instance, 4G spectrum can be repurposed for 5G under the Bill’s provisions. Spectrum can also be “harmonised”, or strategically shared across different geographies by different telcos, and it can be surrendered if lying unused. This, the person said, would enable airwaves to be used optimally.  

Interception, surveillance to remain

The “trusted sources” regime — which came into being after the 2020 Indo–Chinese border skirmishes, to stop imports of telecom equipment from hostile nations — will now be part of the law, if the Bill is passed. A “voluntary undertaking” system will allow telcos to submit information on compliance lapses on their own, and a three-tier adjudicatory mechanism will be in place for hearing disputes. 

Provisions on lawful interception, or surveillance of telecom communications, have been retained as per the earlier Act. The Bill allows the Union government to take over the operations of a telecom network on the grounds of public emergency or safety issues.

Right-of-way laws have been updated to give local authorities like district magistrates more power to adjudicate disputes. “[S]uch positive measures will significantly accelerate the delivery of digital connectivity benefits to every citizen of India,” the Cellular Operators Association of India said in a statement. 

Satellite spectrum allotment

The Bill opens the door for spectrum allotments to satellite internet providers such as Bharti-backed OneWeb and US-based firms, including SpaceX’s Starlink. However, only OneWeb and Jio have been granted active satellite authorisations. After the law’s passage, administrative allotments of the spectrum will have to be held separately before these firms can begin operations. The issue of assigning spectrum administratively versus requiring open auctions for satellite firms had divided domestic and international players in the past.

The Indian Space Association said in a statement: “This decision to allocate the satellite spectrum through a globally harmonised administrative method will pose a greater good for the nation and will spur growth in the nascent space sector, foster healthy competition, and ensure a level playing field for all stakeholders involved.” 

The Digital Infrastructure Providers Association, which represents telecom infrastructure companies, welcomed the Bill. It addresses “long-standing issues for telecom infrastructure providers, including capping of charges, deemed approval, and deployment of telecom infrastructure on private property,” the association’s director general T.R. Dua said in a statement.

Long-pending law

The Universal Service Obligation Fund, which disburses funds for underserved areas that are not yet connected with telecom services, will be renamed as the “Digital Bharat Nidhi,” according to the Bill.

Previous changes in telecom law over the last 138 years have been enabled by other laws and incremental amendments of the British-era Telegraph Act.

The Union government has held two rounds of consultations on this Bill. During the second round, it had declined to provide copies of responses it received from the public and from other government departments on the Bill’s provisions under the Right to Information Act, citing parliamentary confidentiality. 

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