Telecom Bill Removes OTT Reference While Retaining TRAI

By Consultants Review Team Monday, 18 December 2023

A revised draft of the telecom Bill, submitted in Parliament on Monday, excludes over-the-top (OTT) services from its definition of telecom services, paving the way for the government to grant satellite airwaves. It retains the authority granted to India's telecom regulator.

Previous iterations of the Bill broadened the definition of telecommunications services to include over-the-top (OTT) applications like WhatsApp and Skype. These internet-based service providers were to be subject to the same regulations as traditional telecommunications firms. OTT was expressly mentioned in the drafts among a wide range of specialized communication services, such as machine-to-machine communication, in-flight, and maritime connection.

Telecom service providers such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio have urged the definition, claiming that they need a level playing field because OTT communications and satellite-based services allow audio and video calls and messages without paying license or spectrum fees.

Previously, civil workers stated that the government's goal was to solely regulate communication applications "that provide the same service as telecom operators." According to Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, his ministry is looking for a "light-touch" regulatory framework for such OTT apps. OTT apps such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar have expressed worry due to the lack of transparency. There were also fears that apps such as Zomato and Swiggy would be restricted.

Spectrum for Satellites

The most recent draft adds satellite spectrum to the list of sectors where the government has the authority to award spectrum administratively. When satellites are launched into orbit, a portion of the radio spectrum becomes available. The telecom industry is divided over whether the precious resource should be auctioned or allocated by the government.

In June, technological corporations such as American billionaire Elon Musk's Starlink, Amazon's Project Kuiper, and Nelco of India's Tata Group protested the auctioning of satellite communication spectrum as part of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's (TRAI) previous consultation process. Bharti Airtel lobbied for allocations, while Reliance Jio called for auctions.

The Department of Telecommunications has given the Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite Services (GMPCS) license required to offer satellite-based internet service in India to Bharti Airtel-backed Eutelsat's OneWeb and Jio Space, Reliance Jio's satellite arm.

Both companies are now competing in the segment. At the India Mobile Congress in October, Jio successfully showed its Jio SpaceFiber service, India's first satellite-based gigabit-speed internet service, reaching previously unreachable locations within the country. The chairman of Bharti, Sunil Bharti Mittal, has stated that OneWeb's satellite communication service will be accessible in India soon.

Changes to the TRAI The revised draft removes contentious elements on the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which critics claimed would significantly erode the regulator's authority and turn it into a rubber stamp for the government.

Earlier drafts advocated for altering Section 11 of the Trai Act of 1997, which requires the government to seek the regulator's advice for spectrum management, licensing, and new service matters.

The most recent draft has made it possible for senior private-sector corporate executives to be appointed as TRAI's Chairperson. Non-government executives may be hired "if such person has at least thirty years of professional experience and has served as a member of the board of directors or a chief executive of a company in certain areas."

TRAI members must have at least 25 years of professional experience and have served on boards of directors.


Current Issue