Telecom Bill 2023 provides for govt control of telecom networks in case of public emergency

The bill proposes to stop transmission and intercept messages in case of public emergency, in the interest of public, to prevent incitement for committing offence.

Telecom Bill 2023 provides for govt control of telecom networks in case of public emergency

Tuesday December 19, 2023,

5 min Read

The government on Monday introduced a new telecom bill in Lok Sabha which seeks to allow the authorities to temporarily take control of telecom services in the interest of national security, provide for a non-auction route for allocation of satellite spectrum, and drop OTT in the definition of services.

The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, proposes that the Centre will take temporary possession of telecom networks in case of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety.

The bill proposes to stop transmission and intercept messages in case of public emergency, in the interest of public, to prevent incitement for committing offence etc.

"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.

The bill was introduced in the lower house by Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw amid din over the Opposition demanding a statement by Home Minister Amit Shah on the Parliament security breach issue.

When Vaishnaw initiated the process of introducing the bill, BSP member Ritesh Pandey opposed its introduction as it was being brought in as a Money Bill and would not require the approval of the Rajya Sabha. Pandey also sought that the bill be sent to a parliamentary committee since there are concerns relating to privacy.

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 proposes the allocation of spectrum to satellite communications companies through the administrative method.

The move is in line with the demand of global satellite services companies and rejects the argument made by domestic telecom players Jio and Vodafone Idea for allocation of spectrum for commercial use through auction only.

While the bill defines transmission of messages through wire or wireless technologies as telecommunication, official sources said the definition is as per the old act, and the internet-based messaging and calling apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, and Google Meet will be covered under IT rules and not under telecom laws as per government rules of business allocation.

With this move, the ongoing consultation process around over-the-top (OTT) apps can no longer be continued by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), sources clarified.

"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 bill said.

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.

The bill defines cases when spectrum will be assigned through the administrative method.

"Auction will be the preferred mode of spectrum allocation. However, in cases where the auction of the spectrum is not the preferred mode of assignment due to technical or economic reasons or to serve the public interest or to perform government function, the spectrum will be assigned administratively," an official citing the bill said.

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According to sources, the price for administrative allocation of spectrum for satellite service will be decided based on reference sought from TRAI while BSNL and MTNL will need to match the auction-determined price.

Companies will require authorisation to start providing telecom services instead of licences that are issued at present, according to the bill.

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 proposes protective measures for telecom infrastructure and reinforces provision for smooth rollout of networks especially optical fibre cables.

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

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

The bill, if passed, will make it mandatory to issue SIM after capturing verifiable biometric data of the applicant to prevent misuse of telecom resources.

The bill proposes 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, etc.

The government has proposed to mandate sector regulator TRAI to share its reply on clarification sought from it within 30 days.

Edited by Swetha Kannan