REIMAGINING TELECOM – 25 YEARS ON…
Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha & Former Telecom Entrepreneur
This year 2018 marks a major milestone in the history of modern India – the completion of 25 years since Private Entrepreneurs were awarded licences for the first time in 1993 – I was one of them – going on to build the largest greenfield network of those days despite great adversity and scepticism. I was 29-years-old then and have been a participant and witness to the progress of the Telecom Sector since.
Over the course of the last 25 years, Telecom has been the biggest and most transformational reforms that this country has ever seen – improving connectivity and boosting India’s economy by attracting $21.2 billion FDI from April 2000 to October 2016, creating four million jobs directly and indirectly and contributing 6.5% to India’s GDP – all achieved with private capital.
25 years on – and with a Government that has committed to Transforming and Reforming to create a New India – the time is right for a relook at the Telecom policy – ReImagining Telecom as I like to refer to it. I had written to the PM in July 2017 suggesting this and as a result the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had sought inputs from the public on the National Telecom Policy (NTP) 2018.
Along with others, I too have submitted my views titled ‘Reimagining Telecom’ to the TRAI’s Consultation Paper on NTP 2018.
This government has committed itself to structuring change in Economy and Governance. It has also walked the talk on important issues like Transparency, Technology in Governance and also on Consumer Rights, e.g. the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act.
So, Reimagining Telecom is totally consistent with this Government’s objectives.
For starters, I believe the policy should be a comprehensive Technology and Telecom policy – addressing both innovation and infrastructure sides of the coin – keeping increasing Connectivity, rapid Technological evolution in ICT (Information & Communication Technology) sector, Consumer Rights and Regulatory institutional capacity growth as its goals. A ReImagined Policy could trigger an additional FDI of $20 billion, create over a million additional jobs and catalyze India into the leadership of Future Emerging areas of Technology.
Evolution of Telecom Policy in India
During this 25-years period, India has seen three telecom policies – NTP-1994, NTP-1999 and NTP-2012. While NTP-1994 envisioned telecom reforms and paved the way for private participation, it was the NTP-1999 released by the NDA government under PM Vajpayee which paved the way for structural reforms in the industry. This resulted in healthy competition among the telecom service providers, drastically bringing down the costs and leading to an exponential growth in mobile subscriptions. This policy has been most effective in spawning the phenomenal growth of telecom services in India.
However, the third National Telecom Policy, i.e., NTP-2012 achieved little and may have negated some of the positive reforms brought out by previous policies by introducing a unified licensing regime allowing operators to provide converged services and delinking the spectrum from licensees – without being explicit about how to allot spectrum. This policy may have perpetuated the ambiguities that resulted in the infamous 2G Scam and required the Supreme Court to intervene on the basic issue of license allocation.
Clearly, the last effective telecom policy (NTP-1999) will be 19 years old in 2018. In “internet time”, this would be considered an exceptionally long period, and hence, there is a need for review of the prevailing regime. The need to ReImagine Telecom assumes greater significance with the roll-out of the present Government’s vision of “Digital India” that is core to the PMs vision of transforming governance and lives of Indians.
Features of National Telecom and Technology Policy
While India is one of the largest connected countries, it remains one of the largest unconnected one too. Clearly most important goal of this policy must be to ensure every Indian gets Internet and broadband access, which is currently at less than 30% as on end of November 2017 while even low in rural India at 15%. Clearly these figures are unacceptable and focus must be on expanding the access and availability of Internet and broadband facilities, especially in rural India.
This govt has demonstrated its focus on the consumer. Telecom consumers have long suffered at the hands of Telecom Companies as the simple issue of call drops and Internet quality show. So, this new policy also must lay down a Magna Carta of Digital Consumer Rights – a basket of consumer rights including privacy, net neutrality, quality of service and free and fair competition among others.
Further, the new policy needs to clearly establish the role of the ICT as a facilitator of inclusive growth and sustainable development on one hand, and as an essential delivery mechanism for important national programs such as “Digital India” and “Smart Cities” and transforming Government and Governance on the other. It also needs to develop an enabling framework that will aid the penetration of new, emerging technologies such as AI, IoT and Blockchain, etc.
With Digital India and mygov.in this government has clearly set out a roadmap to embed technology in Government – both to speed up decision making and also allow better Government-Citizen interfacing. But this needs to be accelerated and expanded to break the traditional silo-like functioning of Government. Only technology and large intranets can break down these silos and ensure transparency. It is time for binding all government ministries to enable more transparency, collaboration, and data-led decision and policy making.
The capacities of Institutions like TRAI have to be built into a Global-Standard Regulatory with powers and capabilities to ensure reasoned, high quality, consultative economic and technology regulation. For Global standards investments, India needs Global standard institutions, policies and regulation.
As we look back at the last 25 years, the dramatic transformation is evident to all. More recently in less than a decade, the disruptive powers of the Internet has transformed Government, Business and Citizens’ lives. This is nothing when compared to the new disruptive technologies expected to come in years. Our Governance and Policy framework are ill equipped for it and must transform fast so that India can be ahead of the curve in this wave of Technological innovation – this creating a new wave of entrepreneurship, investments and jobs.
The NDA government in 1999 had formulated one of the best national telecom policies. The current Narendra Modi government kicked off a process to shape a New Telecom Policy. I hope the coming budget signals that clearly because this policy could and can l propel India to the lead among the nations and companies shaping the future of innovation and Technology.