India’s parliament has just passed a groundbreaking telecommunications bill, replacing a set of outdated rules that have been in place for over a century. The country, which boasts over 1.17 billion telephone connections and 881 million internet subscribers, is determined to modernize connectivity and embrace the potential of new services like satellite broadband. This legislative move comes just months before the country’s general elections and marks a significant step towards a more connected and advanced India.
On Thursday, the upper house of the Indian parliament approved the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, through voice votes, just a day after the bill was cleared in the lower house, with many opposition leaders absent due to their suspension.
The newly passed bill not only abolishes outdated telegraph-era rules that date back as early as 1885, but it also grants the government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, unprecedented power to use and control telecom services and networks, as well as monitor traffic data in the interest of national security. The bill also maintains the provision for the Indian government to intercept communication.
The bill also includes key provisions for satellite-based services without the need for participating in auctions. This is a welcome move for companies like OneWeb, Starlink, and Amazon’s Kuiper, all of which are eager to launch their satellite broadband services in the world’s most populous country. The bill also addresses the demands of these companies for a more streamlined administrative process for spectrum allocation. Interestingly, Jio, one of India’s major telecom players, had previously opposed this model of spectrum allocation, but the company is now looking to enter the satellite broadband market.
One of the bill’s main objectives is to ensure fraud prevention and improve the overall integrity of the telecom industry. To that end, it includes measures such as biometric verification for subscribers and limiting the number of SIM cards each individual can use. Additionally, it also outlines civil penalties for those who violate specific provisions, including fines up to $12,000 for infringement and up to $600,400 for breaching terms and conditions defined in the law.
Indeed, the bill has broader implications as the Indian government aims to attract foreign investment and expand private participation in the telecom sector. As such, it includes amendments to the 1997 Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, which regulates the industry. Notably, these amendments allow individuals with over 30 years of private sector experience to be appointed as the regulator’s chairperson, while those with over 25 years can become members. This is a significant departure from the previous requirement of allowing only retired government employees to serve as chairpersons and members of the regulator.
“It is very comprehensive and reflects the vision of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi ji. This bill will leave behind the legacy of old scammers in the telecom sector, making way for a brighter future. It will turn the telecom sector into a sunrise sector,” said Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Indian telecom minister, while introducing the bill in the parliament.
Despite its progressive nature, the telecom bill has also raised some concerns. Notably, it excludes the term “OTT,” which was present in its initial draft last year. “OTT” refers to over-the-top messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram. While industry bodies like the Internet and Mobile Association of India have welcomed this change, it should be noted that the bill’s scope for regulating these apps is not entirely clear. In fact, Shivnath Thukral, Meta’s public policy head in India, warned in an internal email that the government may have the power to classify these apps as telecommunications services in the future and subject them to an authorization regime, as reported by Indian outlet Moneycontrol.
Moreover, digital rights activists and privacy advocacy groups have also raised concerns over the bill’s ambiguity and the lack of public consultation. At a public event earlier this week, Apar Gupta, the founding director of the digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation, pointed out that the bill does not have adequate safeguards for those under surveillance. “The department of telecommunications still refuses to create a centralized repository of internet shutdowns, reducing transparency. We are completely ignoring the core of telecommunication rules that is crucial,” he emphasized.
Similarly, digital rights organization Access Now has called for the bill’s withdrawal and the creation of a new draft through consultation. “The bill is regressive as it gives the government colonial-era powers to intercept communications and shut down the internet. It undermines end-to-end encryption, which is essential for privacy,” said Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now, in a prepared statement.
The bill now awaits final approval from the Indian President before becoming an official act.