The Lok Sabha recently approved the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, a significant piece of legislation that empowers the government to temporarily take control of telecom services in the interest of national security. The bill, passed by a voice vote after a brief debate, also addresses the allocation of satellite spectrum and grants the government authority to assume possession of a telecom network during public emergencies or in the interest of public safety.
Provisions for Emergency Situations
- The bill, spearheaded by Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, outlines provisions for stopping transmission and intercepting messages in case of public emergencies. It emphasizes that such measures are essential to prevent incitement for committing offenses during times of crisis.
- “On the occurrence of any public emergency, including disaster management, or in the interest of public safety, the central government or a state government, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient, can temporarily take possession of any telecommunication service or telecommunication network from an authorized entity,” the bill states.
Protection for Press Messages
- The bill specifies that the press messages of correspondents accredited to the Centre or state governments shall not be intercepted or detained, except under specific circumstances defined by rules applicable to public emergencies or public order.
- Vaishnaw highlighted that the bill provides for the allocation of spectrum to satellite communications companies through the administrative method, aligning with global satellite services companies’ demands and rejecting arguments from domestic telecom players.
Administrative vs. Auction Route
- The bill proposes that the central government assigns spectrum for telecommunications through auction, except for specific entries listed in the First Schedule, for which assignment shall be done through the administrative process.
- This move aligns with global trends and addresses the demands of satellite services companies, contrary to the preferences of domestic telecom players advocating for commercial use through auctions.
- Upon bill approval, companies in the telecom sector will transition from requiring licenses to needing authorization to offer telecommunication services, signaling a regulatory shift in the industry.
- The government’s proposal includes a substantial reduction in the maximum penalties for telecom operators, slashing the upper limit from Rs 50 crore to Rs 5 crore per circle. This translates to a significant decrease, limiting the maximum penalty for a telecom company to approximately Rs 1,100
Protecting Telecom Infrastructure
- The bill incorporates protective measures aimed at safeguarding telecom infrastructure, with a specific focus on reinforcing provisions for the seamless deployment of networks, especially those utilizing optical fiber cables.
- In an effort to facilitate unhindered telecom network installations, the government proposes exemptions, shielding telecom networks on any property from potential claims, encumbrances, liquidation, or similar issues associated with the property.
Spectrum Utilization and SIM Card Issuance
- The bill empowers the government to terminate spectrum assignments in cases where the assigned spectrum is deemed unutilized without adequate justification, providing a mechanism to ensure efficient use of this critical telecom resource.
- In a bid to curb misuse of telecom resources, the legislation mandates companies to issue SIM cards only after capturing verifiable biometric data of the applicant, enhancing the security and authenticity of the registration process.
- To deter fraudulent practices in obtaining SIM cards or other telecom resources, the bill introduces penalties, including the possibility of a jail term of up to three years or a fine of up to Rs 50 lakh, creating a legal deterrent against fraud, cheating, or personation in the acquisition process.
Regulatory Authority and Repealing Laws
- The government is considering mandating the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to respond to clarification requests within a strict 30-day timeframe.
- The proposed bill includes the repeal of two laws, including the historic 138-year-old Indian Telegraph Act of 1885.
Transformative Measures in Telecom
- Minister Vaishnaw underscores the proposed transition from multiple licenses to a simplified authorization process, aiming to enhance efficiency in the telecom sector’s administrative procedures.
- The bill’s significance is highlighted through the introduction of a four-tier dispute resolution mechanism to reduce litigation, as well as its contribution to strengthening the legal framework for addressing cybersecurity issues and promoting innovation through the inclusion of a regulatory sandbox provision.
- The Lok Sabha approved the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, granting government power to control telecom services for national security and public safety during emergencies.
- The bill allows interception of messages during public emergencies but protects press messages of accredited correspondents.
- Spectrum allocation for satellite communications will follow administrative methods, diverging from the preference of domestic telecom players for auctions.
- The bill signals a regulatory shift, transitioning telecom companies from licenses to authorizations and reducing maximum penalties for operators.
- Protective measures focus on safeguarding telecom infrastructure, ensuring efficient spectrum use, and introducing penalties for fraudulent practices, while also proposing transformative measures like a simplified authorization process and the repeal of outdated laws.