Lok Sabha Passes Telecom Bill 2023 to Replace 138-year-old Telegraph Act

Syllabus:  GS-II, Polity and Governance;

Subject: Polity and Governance;

Topic: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation;

Issue: Telecom Bill, 2023;

Context: The Lok Sabha on December 20 passed the omnibus Telecom Bill 2023 which will replace existing laws, including the 138-year-old Indian Telegraph Act..

Key Highlights of the Bill:

  • Replaces Existing Laws: It repeals the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933, and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950.
    • It also amends the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Act, 1997.
  • Authorisation for Telecom-Related Activities: Prior authorisation from the central government will be required to:
    • Provide telecommunication services,
    • Establish, operate, maintain, or expand telecommunications networks, or
    • Possess radio equipment.
  • Existing licences will continue to be valid for the period of their grant, or for five years, where the period is not specified.
  • Assignment of spectrum: assigned by auction, except for specified uses, where it will be allocated on an administrative basis. These include purposes such as:
    • National security and defence,
    • Disaster management,
    • Weather forecasting,
    • Transport,
    • Satellite services such as DTH and satellite telephony, and
    • BSNL, MTNL, and public broadcasting services.
    • The central government may re-purpose or re-assign any frequency range.  The central government may permit sharing, trading, leasing, and surrender of spectrum.
  • Powers of interception and search: Messages or a class of messages between two or more persons may be intercepted, monitored, or blocked on certain grounds.  Such actions must be necessary or expedient in the interest of public safety or public emergency, and must be in the interest of specified grounds.
  • Powers to specify standards: The central government may prescribe standards and assessments for telecom equipment, infrastructure, networks, and services.
  • Right of way: Facility providers may seek a right of way over public or private property to establish telecom infrastructure.  Right of way must be provided on a non-discriminatory and non-exclusive basis to the extent possible.
  • Protection of users: The central government may provide for measures to protect users which include:
    • Prior consent to receive specified messages such as advertising messages,
    • Creation of Do Not Disturb registers, and
    • A mechanism to allow users to report malware or specified messages.
      • Entities providing telecom services must establish an online mechanism for registration and redressal of grievances.
  • Appointments to TRAI: The Bill amends the TRAI Act to also allow individuals with:
    • At least 30 years of professional experience to serve as the chairperson, and
    • At least 25 years of professional experience to serve as members.
  • Digital Bharat Nidhi: The Universal Service Obligation Fund has been established under the 1885 Act to provide for telecom services in underserved areas.  The Bill retains this provision, renames the fund as Digital Bharat Nidhi, and also allows its use for research and development.
  • Offences and penalties: Providing telecom services without authorisation, or gaining unauthorised access to a telecom network or data, are punishable with imprisonment up to three years, a fine up to two crore rupees, or both.
  • Adjudication process: The central government will appoint an adjudicating officer to conduct inquiries and pass orders against civil offences under the Bill.
    • The officer must be of the rank of joint secretary and above. Orders of the adjudicating officer may be appealed before the Designated Appeals Committee within 30 days.
    • Members of this Committee will be officers of the rank of at least Additional Secretary. Appeals against the orders of the Committee, in connection to breach of terms and conditions, may be filed with TDSAT within 30 days.
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