NDCP 2018 is made-to-order for resolution of the challenges seen today in the environment. However, this superb policy—almost entirely—is awaiting implementation since more than a year.
By TV Ramachandran & Rajat Mukarji
India is very fortunate to have a dynamic and progressive telecom regulatory framework and a strong administrative department. Together, over the last two decades, this has made possible the Great Indian Telecom Miracle—of explosive growth of affordable mobile telecom. I am reminded of Reed Hundt, Chairman of the US’s Federal Communications Commission during Bill Clinton’s first term, who visited Delhi a few months after the first TRAI was constituted under the brilliant chairmanship of former Supreme Court judge Justice MS Sodhi. Hundt openly praised the new TRAI Act in a conference and wished he could have similar legislation!
Over the years, we have had a succession of very eminent regulators, starting with the inimitable Justice Sodhi, followed by the renowned banker MS Verma, and then, a succession of seasoned and brilliant bureaucrats like Pradip Baijal, Nripendra Misra, JS Sarma, Rahul Khullar to the incumbent—reform-minded RS Sharma, who is also credited with the designing of the now world-famous Aadhaar, and the Digital India vision. Each one of them excelled in several ways and left indelible footprints on the sands of Indian telecom, and have collectively nurtured India on its way to the number-two position in the entire global telecom firmament.
DoT also has been continually playing masterstrokes in policy-making, whether through the first telecom policy, the national telecom policy (NTP) 1994, which ushered in telecom privatisation, the epoch-making NTP 1999, which completely changed the face Indian telecom, or NTP 2012, which first cut the umbilical cord of licence from the allocated access spectrum and brought in the open and transparent method of allocating access spectrum through auctions.
The latest/current policy, National Digital Communications Policy 2018, was crafted in a truly remarkable manner. As many as 12 specialist committees of DoT worked on different areas of the policy for several months to provide their inputs; TRAI had detailed consultations and provided its recommendations. This is the first time in Indian telecom history that the telecom policy was formulated based solidly on TRAI recommendations. Top DoT officials also held open and transparent interactions with all the chambers of commerce, the industry associations and think tanks. A draft policy was developed on the basis of these wide-ranging discussions and put on the net for comments.
Finally, the draft policy was reviewed and fine-tuned to produce a brilliant final policy, the NDCP 2018, which has three major parts—Connect India, Propel India & Secure India. The policy seeks to lift India from the rather archaic telecom level to the futuristic digital plane, and is both pragmatic and revolutionary in its approach. Above all, it received enthusiastic and whole-hearted acclaim from all segments of the industry.
NDCP 2018 is made-to-order for resolution of the challenges seen today in the environment. However, this superb policy—almost entirely—is awaiting implementation since more than a year. There is another low-hanging fruit today for our growth requirements. As mentioned earlier, we are lucky to have an excellent regulatory institution, active for more than 23 years, in an open, transparent and consultative manner. The summary below highlights how active they have been in the last decade:
TRAI recommendations during April 1, 2010 to March 15, 2020: With the total number of recommendations made by TRAI being 60, total number of recommendations pertaining to digital communications being 48; total number of recommendations partially/fully acted upon being 17, and the total number of recommendations yet to be acted upon being 31, over 75% of the regulator’s recommendations await acceptance/action at DoT.
Key TRAI recommendations that could be very useful today if implemented include, inter alia:
1. auction of spectrum in several bands (including 5G bands).
2. reduction in licence fee, USO levy and spectrum usage charges
3. reduction in the rate of GST imposed for telecom sector (from 18% to 5%).
4. proliferation of broadband through public Wi-Fi networks;
5. enhancement of Scope of Infrastructure Providers Category-I (IP-I) Registration;
6. reforming the guidelines for transfer/merger of telecom licences;
7. review of terms and conditions for registration of other service providers (OSPs);
8. relaxation in payout on spectrum auction price;
9. privacy, security and ownership of the data in the telecom sector;
10. making ICT accessible for persons with disabilities;
11. next-generation Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR) communication networks;
12. spectrum, roaming and QoS related requirements in machine-to-machine (M2M) communications;
13. captive VSAT CUG policy issues;
14. spectrum usage charges & presumptive-AGR for ISPs & commercial VSAT service providers;
15. encouraging data usage in rural areas through provisioning of free data;
16. redefining broadband speed/ increasing broadband speed;
17. allocation and pricing of Microwave Access (MWA) and Microwave Backbone (MWB) RF Carriers;
18. definition of revenue base (AGR) for the reckoning of licence fee and spectrum usage charges;
19. recommendations on ease of doing telecom business dated November 30, 2017.
TRAI arrives at its recommendations after an elaborate and time-consuming process of open and transparent consultations. To not take suitable decisions on acting on these expeditiously is a big loss to consumers and the economy, apart from resulting in avoidable waste of regulatory expertise and resources.
The many years of robust regulatory toil and recommendations could now be leveraged for getting good outcomes that would mitigate the impact of the current pandemic.
Key NDCP provisions awaiting implementation:
1. Action on improving National Broadband Mission: Bharatnet (the direly-needed fibre network for high quality broadband)
2. Optimal spectrum pricing regime (For much-needed business viability)
3. Rationalisation of taxes & levies
4. Promotion of open public Wi-Fi through PDOA/PDOs (based on TRAI recommendation of January 2017; absolutely essential for achieving broadband for all)
5. Opening up of E & V bands (a readymade interim solution for fibre-to-home for bandwidth)
6. Sharing of passive and active infra (IP-1); a must for infrastructure augmentation)
7. Implementation of SATCOM directives as per NDCP guidelines (essential for ubiquitous broadband)
8. Fibre First Initiative. Setting up of National Authority (India is very Fibre-Starved)
9. Rationalisation of RoW Guidelines across states
10. Creating accessibility of ICT to person with disabilities (PwD); essential for digital inclusivity)
It is reiterated that DoT had meticulously sculpted the policy through 12 specialist committees and consultations with all chambers of commerce, all industry associations and think tanks. Most importantly, the policy had been approved by the Cabinet on September 26, 2018, in a meeting chaired by the prime minister and also formally gazette-notified by October 31, 2018. Hence, there need be no diffidence or hesitation whatsoever for the earliest implementation of these decisions approved through full process.
Telecom/digital services are one of the most effective tools against Covid-19. The powerful arsenal is available to us courtesy DoT’s NDCP 2018 and TRAI recommendations mentioned above. The time to act is now. Else, we could get trapped in digital “shallows and miseries”.
Ramachandran is Fellow, IET(London) and President, Broadband India Forum & Mukarji is DG, Broadband India Forum. Views are personal.
With inputs from Garima Kapoor and Debashish Bhattacharya. Illustration by Rohnit Phore