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Licence for call, video apps, easing insolvency issues — what’s in Modi govt’s draft telecom bill

Draft bill released Wednesday continues to reserve for govt the right to intercept calls and take control of telecom services during a war or whenever national security is invoked.

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New Delhi: Bringing over-the-top (OTT) communication services like WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram within the umbrella of telecommunication services, and measures to ease bankruptcy and insolvency issues faced by big telecom companies in India — these are some of the provisions of a new draft regulatory bill for the telecom sector, released by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) Wednesday.

The draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022, which follows months of deliberation, was tweeted by Ashwini Vaishnaw, the minister of communications and electronics and information technology, who invited public comments on the draft.

Bringing OTT communication offered by technology giants like Google and Meta within the purview of telecom services will not only make it mandatory for these entities to apply for licences to operate, but also ensure they comply with DoT regulations.

The draft continues to reserve for the government the right to intercept calls and take control of telecom services during a war or whenever national security is invoked. While journalists are exempted from the provision allowing the interception of calls, the central government will have the power to revoke the exemption in case of public emergencies.

The existing framework of  telecommunication regulations draws upon the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, while the new draft bill is an amalgamation of the 1885 Act, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 and The Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Protection) Act, 1950.

According to an explanatory note in the draft bill, changes in the patterns of technology usage — including big-tech giants introducing telecommunication services without licences — made it necessary for the DoT to draw up fresh regulatory measures.

The draft bill authorises the Union government to grant licences to all companies providing “telecommunication services or telecommunication networks” — which also means big-tech companies will have to comply with the government’s terms and conditions after procuring licences.

The idea, according to the draft bill, is to create a level playing field for all telecom companies.

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Relief and scrutiny

The draft bill proposes easing penal provisions for companies facing bankruptcy and insolvency proceedings.

“In the event the licensee or assignee that has become subject to insolvency proceeding fails to comply with the conditions, then the spectrum, if any, assigned to such entity shall revert to the control of the central government, and the central government may take such further action, as may be prescribed, which may include allowing such licensee or assignee to continue to use the spectrum, subject to placing the revenue of such entity in a separate designated account with the licence fee and charges applicable being paid first in priority during such period,” the bill reads.

Companies dealing with insolvency issues may also continue to provide services if certain terms and conditions are met, such as ensuring no further default in payments or fees.

The draft bill also recognises that there may be extraordinary circumstances to a company’s state of affairs, such as extreme financial stress, volatility in consumer interest, or market competition. Therefore, companies would also be given opportunities to seek relief measures like deferment of payments, conversion of payments to shares and even to write off amounts.

A chapter in the draft bill is dedicated to regulatory measures and the government’s powers during war and public emergencies.

According to this chapter, in such conditions, the Union government will have the power to intercept anyone’s conversations and messages, and telecom companies are expected to comply whenever the need arises. Suspensions of telecommunication networks may also be ordered when deemed necessary, and in some cases transmission could be stopped.

Members of the press are by and large exempt from such scrutiny, unless they have in any way posed a security threat in the past and are already being monitored.

“Press messages intended to be published in India by correspondents accredited to the central government or a state government shall not be intercepted or detained unless their transmission has been prohibited (already),” the draft bill states.

Earlier this month, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), which represents big-tech giants like Meta and Google, had sought  “federal oversight” of internet suspensions that caused trouble to companies from the business perspective. The IAMAI had submitted a written document to the government saying that there should be some cognisance of the telecom businesses’ losses during internet shutdowns.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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