The year 2018 marks a significant milestone in the history of modern India—the completion of 25 years since private entrepreneurs were awarded licences for the first time in 1993. I was one of them—going on to build the most extensive greenfield network of those days despite great adversity and scepticism. I was 29-years-old then and have been a participant and witness to the progress of the telecom sector since. Over the course of the last 25 years, telecom has seen the biggest and most transformational reforms—improving connectivity and boosting India’s economy by attracting more than $30 billion FDI from April 2000 to September 2017, employing 4 million people (direct and indirect), contributing 6.5% to India’s GDP. All achieved with private capital. Clearly, the FDI in telecom witnessed its lowest in 2012-13 under the UPA Government—marred by 2G scam which led to SC intervening and cancelling 122 licences, significantly deterring any investment into a burgeoning sector. The NDA Government inherited this sector at its lowest but since, the FDI has increased substantially, achieving the highest inflow of $6.01 billion in FY18 (till September). The credit goes to reforms introduced by PM Modi.
Commensurate to the FDI inflow, India now has the second largest network in the world, next only to China. The total telephone subscribers in the country stands at 1,185 million as on December 2017. Of this, 501 million are rural. However, 25 years since, the sector is reeling under stress—as noted in the Economic Survey—with growing losses, debt pile-up, price wars and reduced revenue. With the government committed to transforming and reforming to create a New India, time is right to relook the telecom policy. I had written to the PM in July 2017 suggesting this, and as a result, Trai had sought inputs from the public on the National Telecom Policy (NTP) 2018.
Along with others, I too have submitted my views titled ‘Reimagining Telecom’. This government is committed to structuring change in economy and governance. It has walked the talk on important issues like transparency, technology in governance and also on consumer rights, eg, the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act. Reimagining Telecom is consistent with its objectives. For starters, I believe the policy should be a comprehensive technology and telecom policy addressing both innovation and infrastructure—keeping increasing connectivity, rapid technological evolution in ICT sector, consumer rights and regulatory, institutional capacity growth as its goals. A ReImagined Policy could trigger an additional FDI of $20 billion, create over a million jobs and catalyse India into the leadership of future emerging areas of technology. During this 25-year period, India has seen three telecom policies—NTP-1994, NTP-1999 and NTP-2012. While NTP-1994 envisioned telecom reforms and paved the way for private participation, it was the NTP-1999, released by the NDA government under PM Vajpayee, which paved the way for structural changes. This resulted in healthy competition among the TSPs, drastically bringing down the costs and leading to an exponential growth in mobile subscriptions.
However, the third National Telecom Policy, ie, NTP-2012 achieved little and may have negated some of the positive reforms brought out by previous policies by introducing a unified licensing regime allowing operators to provide converged services and delinking the spectrum from licensees without being explicit about how to allot spectrum. This policy may have perpetuated the ambiguities that resulted in the infamous 2G Scam and required the SC to intervene on the basic issue of license allocation. Clearly, the last effective telecom policy (NTP-1999) will be 19 years old in 2018. In “internet time”, this would be considered an exceptionally long period, and hence warrants a review. Reimagining telecom assumes greater significance with the roll-out of the present Government’s vision of “Digital India”.
While India is one of the largest connected countries, it remains one of the largest unconnected ones too. Most important goal of this policy must be to ensure every Indian gets internet and broadband access, which is currently at less than 30% as of end November 2017, and 15% in rural India. These figures are unacceptable and focus must be on expanding access. Telecom consumers have long suffered at the hands of telecom companies as the issue of call drops and internet quality show. So, this new policy also must lay down a Magna Carta of digital consumer rights—including privacy, net neutrality, quality of service and free and fair competition among others. Further, the new policy needs to establish the role of the ICT as a facilitator of inclusive growth and sustainable development on the one hand, and as an essential delivery mechanism for important national programs such as “Digital India” and “Smart Cities” and transforming government and governance on the other. It also needs to develop an enabling framework that will aid the penetration of new, emerging technologies such as AI, IoT and Blockchain, etc.
With Digital India and mygov.in, this government has set out a roadmap to embed technology in government to speed up decision making and allowing better government-citizen interface. This needs to be accelerated to break the traditional silo-like functioning. Only technology and large intranets can break down these silos and ensure transparency. The capacities of institutions like Trai have to be built into a global-standard regulatory with powers and capabilities to ensure reasoned, high quality, consultative economic and technology regulation. For global standard investments, India needs global standard institutions, policies and regulation.
In less than a decade, the disruptive power of the Internet has transformed government, business and citizens’ lives. This is nothing when compared to the new disruptive technologies. Our governance and policy framework is ill-equipped and must transform fast so that India can be ahead of the curve in this wave of tech innovation. The NDA government in 1999 had formulated one of the best national telecom policies. The current Narendra Modi government kicked off a process to shape a new telecom policy. This can propel India to the lead among the nations and companies shaping the future of innovation and technology.
Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha & former telecom entrepreneur.
Views are personal