President Draupadi Murmu has given her assent to the Telecommunications Act, 2023, marking a substantial update to the longstanding Telegraph Act of 1885 that has governed telecom services in the country. This new legislation maintains the framework of existing telecommunications laws while formalizing certain practices, introducing dispute resolution mechanisms, and addressing contemporary issues within the sector.
The Act, which comes into effect following presidential approval, emphasizes the reservation of spectrum bands for various purposes and establishes measures for conflict resolution between licensed service providers and the government. Notably, it introduces streamlined processes for telecom operators to obtain permissions for setting up equipment in different states, fostering smoother regulatory compliance.
However, one aspect of the Telecommunications Act has raised concerns among digital rights advocates. The potentially broad interpretation of the term ‘telecommunications’ in the legislation has caused apprehension, as it does not explicitly exclude online services such as email and messaging apps. Activists worry that this could potentially empower the government to impose stricter controls on these online platforms in the future.
Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw, has sought to allay these concerns by clarifying that the government does not intend to regulate online apps through this Act. Despite this assurance, the vagueness of the language used in the legislation remains a point of contention and will likely be closely monitored as the Act is implemented.
The Act also resolves a long-standing question regarding the auction of spectrum for satellite Internet. Neeraj Mittal, the Secretary of the Department of Telecommunications, clarified that due to the nature of high-frequency wavelengths used by satellite Internet, it is not practical to auction this spectrum. This decision reflects a pragmatic approach to spectrum management, allowing for efficient use without unnecessary interference.
The response from major players in the telecommunications industry, including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Jio, has been positive but measured. While they welcome the Act, there is notable silence on the contentious issue of a ‘network usage fee’ that telecom operators have been advocating. This fee, which web firms resist, has been a point of debate, with concerns raised about potential violations of Net Neutrality principles.
Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has affirmed in Parliament that Net Neutrality is a “resolved issue,” indicating that the government is not actively considering the demands for a network usage fee. The stance on Net Neutrality and related issues will continue to be closely watched, especially as the subordinate rules of the Telecommunications Act are formulated and implemented.
While the timeline for the release of the Act’s subordinate rules remains uncertain, existing notifications, such as licenses issued to telecom operators, remain valid. However, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, a legislation focused on online privacy, is still pending notification, underscoring the complexity and urgency of addressing evolving issues in the digital realm.