Knowledge series: A snapshot of the Telecommunications Act, 2023
In the News:
On December 18, 2023, the Government of India presented the draft of The Telecommunications Bill, 2023 in the Lok Sabha. This proposed legislation was aimed at replacing outdated laws such as the Indian Telegraph Act (1885), Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act (1933), and The Telegraph Wire (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950. The introduction of the Telecom Bill, 2023 occurred almost a year after the conclusion of consultations for its 2022 counterpart. On the 24th of December 2023, the bill received the assent of the President and has now been enacted into law.
The Indian telecommunications sector has historically been governed by three laws:
1. Indian Telegraph Act, 1885
2. Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933
3. Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950
The Government of India has recognized the need for a modern legal framework and over the last few years, has been working towards bringing in structural changes to the current regulatory mechanisms in the sector. The recent repeal of the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act (1950) in December 2023 marked a significant development. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Act (1997) established TRAI as the regulator, and the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) was created to handle disputes. The central government retains the authority to issue licenses.
Despite the evolution of communication technology since the Indian Telegraph Act (1885) came into effect, which originally regulated telegraph services, the outdated legislation continued to govern the telecommunications landscape. Efforts were made in the past, such as introduction of the Communication Convergence Bill in 2001 and the draft Indian Telecommunications Bill, 2020. The latest initiative, The Telecommunications Act, 2023, aims to replace existing telegraph laws, and establish a contemporary regulatory framework for the dynamic telecommunications sector.
Main Features of the Telecommunications Bill, 2023:
Ø Telecom related Authorization: Approval from the central government is mandatory for telecommunication services, network expansion, or radio equipment possession. Existing licenses are valid for their duration or up to five years.
Ø Spectrum Allocation: Auctions are the usual method, except for specific purposes like national security and public broadcasting, where administrative allocation applies. The government can reassign frequency ranges, and spectrum sharing, trading, leasing, or surrendering is permitted.
Ø Interception and Search Authority: The legislation allows the interception or blocking of messages for public safety, emergencies, and specific reasons like state security. Telecom services can be suspended, and temporary possession of telecom infrastructure is allowed in public emergencies.
Ø Protection of Users from Spam calls: Measures for user safety include requirement of mandatory prior consent to be taken by companies from subscribers for specific messages, including advertising messages, establishing ‘Do Not Disturb’ registers, and enabling user reporting mechanisms for malware or undesired messages. Telecom providers must maintain an online grievance redressal system.
Ø Right of Way: Entities installing telecom infrastructure can request fair and non-exclusive right of way over public or private property. It is an excellent provision that will smoothen the network roll out
Ø TRAI Appointments: Amendments in the TRAI Act permit individuals with 30 years of experience for the Chairperson role and 25 years for members.
Ø Widening the scope of USO Fund as Digital Bharat Nidhi: The bill, renames the Universal Service Obligation Fund as Digital Bharat Nidhi, broadening its scope to include telecom research and development.
Ø Rationalizing amount of penalty for violation of authorization terms: The legislation defines various criminal and civil offences, specifying penalties for unauthorized telecom services, network access, or violation of terms.
Ø Adjudication Process: An adjudicating officer, ranked joint secretary or above, will handle inquiries and issue orders for civil offences. Appeals can be made to the Designated Appeals Committee and further to TDSAT.
Ø Innovation and Technology Focus: The bill emphasizes a dedication to fostering innovation and technological progress in the telecom sector.
The Telecommunications Act, 2023, introduces a transformative paradigm for India's telecommunications sector, addressing outdated laws and adapting to contemporary challenges. The bill's forward-looking features, including streamlined spectrum allocation and enhanced user protection measures, signify a commitment to fostering innovation and efficiency. Despite commendable strides, the industry calls for further scrutiny and a more balanced regulatory framework mainly due to the retention of certain surveillance powers. As India embraces a dynamic telecom landscape, the act holds the potential to usher in a modern era marked by technological progress and regulatory resilience.
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