LS approves Telecom Bill 2023; provides for Govt control on communication network in emergency

The bill allows the Centre to take possession of a telecom network in case of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety
LS approves Telecom Bill 2023; provides for Govt control on communication network in emergency
LS approves Telecom Bill 2023; provides for Govt control on communication network in emergency

New Delhi: A bill allowing the Government to temporarily take control of telecom services in the interest of national security, and providing a non-auction route for the allocation of satellite spectrum was approved by the Lok Sabha on Wednesday.

The Telecommunications Bill 2023, which was passed by a voice vote after a short debate, also allows the Centre to take possession of a telecom network in case of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety. Most of the opposition members did not attend the House following their suspension.

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The bill, piloted by Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, provides for stopping transmission and intercepting messages in case of public emergency, in the interest of the public, to prevent incitement for committing offence.

"The bill will promote structural reforms in the telecom sector," Vaishnaw said.

"On the occurrence of any public emergency, including disaster management, or in the interest of public safety, the central government or a state government or any officer specially authorised in this behalf by the central government or a state government, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, by notification—take temporary possession of any telecommunication service or telecommunication network from an authorised entity," the bill said.

According to the bill, the press messages of correspondents accredited to the Centre or state governments shall not be intercepted or detained unless their transmission has been prohibited under rules applicable for public emergency, public order etc.

The bill provides for the allocation of spectrum to satellite communications companies through the administrative method, Vaishnaw said.

The provisions of the bill, it may be mentioned, are in line with the demand of global satellite services companies and reject the argument made by domestic telecom players Jio and Vodafone Idea for allocation of spectrum for commercial use through the auction route.

As per the bill, "the central government shall assign spectrum for telecommunication through auction except for entries listed in the First Schedule for which assignment shall be done by administrative process."

The first schedule has 19 cases for which spectrum will be assigned through the administrative process including global mobile personal communication by satellites, national long-distance and international long-distance services, mobile satellite services, VSAT, In-Flight and maritime connectivity, BSNL and MTNL. Once the bill is approved by Parliament, the companies will require authorisation to start providing telecom services instead of licences that are issued at present.

The government has proposed a cap of Rs 5 crore on penalties imposed on telecom operators which was Rs 50 crore earlier per circle implying a maximum penalty of around Rs 1,100 crore on a telecom company.

The bill also provides protective measures for telecom infrastructure and reinforces provision for smooth roll-out of networks especially optical fibre cables.

The Centre has also proposed the exemption of telecom networks installed on any property from any claims, encumbrances, liquidation or the like, relating to such property.

The bill provides for the termination of spectrum assignment if the government determines that the assigned spectrum has remained unutilised without any sufficient reasons.

The bill makes it mandatory for companies to issue SIMs after capturing verifiable biometric data of the applicant to prevent misuse of telecom resources.

The bill has a provision for a jail term of up to three years or a fine of up to Rs 50 lakh for a person obtaining SIM or other telecom resource through fraud, cheating, personation, the Minister said.

The government has proposed to mandate sector regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to share its reply on clarification sought from it within 30 days.

Vaishnaw said that the bill would repeal two laws, including 138-year-old Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. He regretted that the opposition did not participate in the debate and "they ran away".

"The bill will usher in the biggest reforms in the sector … Now there will be one simple authorisation instead of 100 licences," he said, adding there is a provision for four-tier dispute resolution which will help in reducing litigation in the sector.

"It will also strengthen the legal system for dealing with cyber-security issues...There will also be provision for regulatory sandbox which will encourage innovation," he added.

Talking about the spectrum, the minister stressed that it is "a natural resource which has to be used judiciously. The members who participated in the discussion included Bhartruhari Mahtab (BJD), Jayant Sinha (BJP) and Shrirang Appa Barne (Shiv Sena).

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