The government on Monday introduced a new telecom bill in parliament proposing the allocation of spectrum to satellite communications companies through the administrative method instead of auction.
Space-based global communication companies and industry associations have been lobbying for an administrative allocation process for satellite communication (satcom) services, opposing the current approach for allocating spectrum through auctions only.
Domestic telecom companies such as Jio and Vodafone Idea have argued for allocation of spectrum for commercial use through auction only.
According to The Telecommunications Bill, 2023, spectrum will continue to be allocated by auction for telecom services.
“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 tabled in Lok Sabha said.
The bill listed 19 cases for which spectrum will be assigned through administrative process. It includes services such as global mobile personal communication by satellites, national long-distance and international long-distance services, direct-to-home services, telecom services by state-run entities BSNL and MTNL, national security and defense, disaster management, and weather forecasting, among others.
“Auction will be the preferred mode of spectrum allocation. However, in cases where the auction of 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,” a Press Trust of India report said, citing an unidentified senior telecom official.
According to the bill, companies will require authorization to start providing telecom services, instead of licenses that are issued at present.
Domestic and international companies have been vying for licenses to offer services in the satcom sector, including commercial satellite broadband.
Bharti Group-backed Eutelsat OneWeb India, Reliance’s Jio Satellite, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and SpaceX’s Starlink are competing in the Indian satcom sector.
Assignment of spectrum will be terminated if the government finds that it has remained unutilized without any sufficient reasons, the bill said.
The central government may re-purpose or re-assign any frequency range, and may permit sharing, trading, leasing, and surrender of spectrum, independent parliamentary research body PRS Legislative said.
The bill mandates a maximum penalty of ₹5 crore per circle on telecom operators, reducing it from the earlier cap of ₹50 crore. This means that a maximum penalty of around ₹1,100 crore can be imposed on a telecom company.
The new legislation proposes protective measures for telecom infrastructure, offering exemption of telecom networks installed on any property from any claims, encumbrances, or liquidation relating to such property.
National security provisions
The proposed bill aims to grant the central government temporary possession of telecom networks during public emergencies or for public safety purposes.
“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 authorized 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 authorized entity,” the bill said.
It also allows the government to stop transmission and intercept messages in cases of public emergencies or to prevent incitement for criminal activities.
Press messages of correspondents accredited to the center or state governments shall not be intercepted or detained unless their transmission has been prohibited under rules applicable for public emergency, public order, the proposed legislation said.
The bill defines transmission of messages through wire or wireless technologies as telecommunication. It, however, excludes internet-based messaging and calling apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Google Meet among others, which will be covered under IT rules.
The bill includes provisions to make it mandatory to issue SIM cards after capturing verifiable biometric data of the applicant to prevent misuse of telecom resources. It also prescribes a jail term of up to three years or a fine of up to ₹50 lakh for a person obtaining SIM or other telecom resource through fraud and cheating.
The draft legislation was tabled in Lok Sabha by communications minister Ashwini Vaishnaw as a money bill, which would not require approval of the Rajya Sabha, inviting strong objection from opposition benches.
Ahead of the voting on the Bill in the parliament, a total of 141 MPs from both the houses, 95 from Lok Sabha and 46 from Rajya Sabha and all belonging to the Opposition, have been suspended for demanding a discussion on the security breach of the parliament last week. While 14 MPs were suspended for the remainder of the session last week, 33 Lok Sabha members and 45 from Rajya Sabha were suspended on Monday, most of them for the remainder of the winter session. Additionally, 49 members were suspended on Tuesday.
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