By now, it is widely accepted in India and abroad that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) excelled in coming out with a draft version of the top-class, path-breaking National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) after months of wide-ranging as well as intensive consultations with all the stakeholders, and also after getting the recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in the matter. The draft policy was placed on the internet for further comments, if any, from all the stakeholders.
After review and approval by the Telecom Commission and lastly by the Union Cabinet, the finalised policy is now in public domain, and it has won universal acclaim. However, not very well known are the significant aspects of fine-tuning that happened in evolving from the draft state to the final. These changes or revisions are extremely meaningful and important for the sector and for Digital India.
– Revenue maximisation is not the priority: Investors, experts and players in this sector have, for many long years, bemoaned the fact that despite some of the well-intentioned policies of the past, successive governments faltered in going for revenue maximisation to bridge the fiscal deficit, at the cost of the real telecom needs of the economy and the common man. This possibly happened due to certain ambiguities in those policies as articulated. This has been addressed in the finalised NDCP right upfront in the second paragraph itself of the Preamble, where we see added in the final—after explaining the need for wide adoption of new technologies and affordability for widely varying demographic profiles—the following new, unambiguous statement: “Accordingly, this policy aims for Universal Coverage rather than revenue maximisation.”
– Importance for policy consistency: Another criticism from players, in the past, has been the incidence of frequent policy flip-flops, which make well-laid business plans go awry. In the finalisation of the policy, this has been recognised and addressed by clearly adding the word “consistent” in the opening statement of Para 4 of the Preamble, which reads: “The objective of this document is to lay out a consistent policy and principles framework … to serve the needs of our aspiring nation.”
– Importance of digital communications infrastructure: Again, in the Preamble itself, in Para 5, it has been specifically added that “it would be critical to focus on Digital Communications Infrastructure development initiatives related to fibre deployment and Right of Way clearances, for both overground and underground infrastructure that will form the bedrock of next generation technologies.”
– Change of name for policy and the commission: It is significant that the big change of policy and implementation perspective is brought out with abundant clarity by the following new introduction in the Preamble: “Keeping in view the changes and advancements in the digital communications ecosystem, the National Telecom Policy will hereinafter be referred to as ‘National Digital Communications Policy’. To ensure effective implementation and monitoring of the Policy, it is proposed to re-designate the Telecom Commission as the Digital Communications Commission to ensure that the high aspirations are achieved within stipulated time.”
Naysayers might dismiss this as a mere name change and what matters is the execution and the result. However, such sceptics should note that, in this case, both the fundamental policy orientation as well as the implementation are addressed. The DCC is to ensure effective implementation and monitoring of the policy and is also to ensure that the high aspirations are achieved within the stipulated time. No ambiguity whatsoever.
– “Allowing benefits of convergence in areas such as IP-PSTN switching”: This is a specific addition to the list of strategies. It could possibly be aimed at providing convergence benefits to call centres, BPOs and internet telephony.
– Incentivising green energy: While the draft had already strategised the “promoting and deployment of solar and green energy,” the final goes further, and asks for “incentivising.” This is a critical requirement.
– Spectrum: Some extremely meaningful changes are noticed here. The word “auctioning” has been deleted in the context of spectrum assignment or allocation. Instead, we now have introduction of “ensure transparency in allocation” and optimise availability and utilisation by “developing a transparent, normative and fair policy for spectrum assignments and allocation.” This seems to imply that auctions need not be followed for spectrum allocation and that any reasonable, fair and transparent method of allocation might be followed. This is a much-needed change from the current status and could mean the real deliverance of the sector from its biggest problem.
Again, the deployment of dynamic database systems is now indicated for allocation also, whereas in the draft such systems had been indicated only for interference management. Does this imply provision for dynamic sharing of spectrum through an allocation process?
– Universal service: Right from its inception, the utilisation of the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) has only been for rural citizens who are not connected. The shortcoming in this approach is that there are also large sections of economically and socially weaker communities that are unconnected and equally deserve universal service. This aspect has been addressed in the final policy in the section dealing with the review of the scope and modalities of USOF.
Some of the key revisions here are the specific inclusion, for review, of the definition of AGR and also of the need to avoid double incidence of levies while reviewing the concept of passthrough charges to align with the principles of input line credit.
Importantly, all are aware that India is woefully inadequate in respect of fixed line connectivity and this is becoming a big handicap as far as digital communications is concerned. This is sought to be addressed through inclusion of a new strategic initiative of “reviewing the rationalisation of licence fees on fixed line revenues to incentivise digital communications.” This, hopefully, should help propel the much-needed growth of fixed line communications in India.
Another great fine-tuning is the addition, in the sub-section dealing with cloud computing, of the following provision: “Facilitating Cloud Service Providers to establish captive fibre networks.” This has been a long-felt need of our data centres and BPO units to improve their efficiency and competitiveness. Until now, two data centres, owned by the same entity but located across the road, would have to go to an external provider to connect up tier-2 units with fibre, adding significantly to costs and time delays. This is now avoided.
All in all, an excellent policy that was being made through extensive consultations over several months has thus reached a brilliant conclusion. (Research inputs by Abhijit Panicker)
(Author is Honorary Fellow of the IET (London) and President of the Broadband India Forum. Views are personal)