This is one change that has been in the air for years. The Union government did just that by introducing the Telecommunications Bill, 2023 in the Lok Sabha on Monday. This will repeal the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885; The Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950. It also amends the TRAI Act, 1997. The bill tabled by Ashwini Vaishnaw union minister for railways, communications and electronics & IT aims to usher in comprehensive regulations in the telecommunications sector.

Among the biggest changes is the clarity on spectrum for satellite communication services. The Bill empowers the Central government to allocate spectrum on an administrative basis for satellite broadband services, which is the global norm for assigning spectrum. It categorically mentions Global Mobile Personal Communication Services (GMPCS) by satellites; National Long Distance and International Long Distance as services that would be provided spectrum via administrative allocation.

This is a big win for Bharti Airtel's Eutelsat OneWeb, Elon Musk's Starlink and Amazon's Kuiper. The issue of spectrum assignment, be it via an auction or administrative allocation was the crux of the debate between government and the telecom industry where Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea were in favour of an auction for satellite spectrum.

The focus on auctioning of radio spectrum started after the Supreme Court's 2012 ruling in the 2G case that allocation of spectrum was illegal as it went on to cancel over a hundred licences. Since then, the government has conducted seven auctions of radio spectrum over the years.

But, the real reason is that satellite spectrum is different from terrestrial spectrum which is used for mobile communications alone. Satellite spectrum has no national limits and across the world there is no precedent of auctioning satellite airwaves. Also since satellite spectrum is shared spectrum, there is no need to auction it as that would lead to wastage of key spectrum.

The issue over satellite spectrum was part of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) consultation paper of April 2023. While there has been no outcome of the consultation paper, the government has gone ahead with administrative allocation of the spectrum.

The Telecom Bill also seeks to keep over-the-top (OTT) services away from the purview of the proposed law. This decision underscores the government's commitment to preserving the sovereignty and integrity of India while acknowledging the evolving landscape of communication technologies.

Tightening down on companies that take licences and are not able to provide services, the Bill categorically states that no person shall be entitled to the refund of any fees or charges paid in respect of or under an authorisation or assignment granted under this Act, if such authorisation or assignment is suspended, curtailed, revoked or varied. It has also renamed the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund to Digital Bharat Nidhi. The Bill also allows the government to take over telecom services and intercept messages in the interest of national security.

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