India’s Telecommunications Bill 2023: Balancing Progress and Privacy Amidst Controversies


The Telecommunications Bill 2023 was passed by both houses in the winter session of Parliament in the absence of the majority of opposition members. The bill solidifies user protection measures in the legislation, permits administrative distribution of satellite spectrum, establishes a four-tiered dispute resolution process, and replaces the licensing regime for communications service providers with an authorization framework.

With nearly 1.179 billion cellular and wireline subscribers as of August 2023, India’s telecom sector is the second largest in the world. At 6% of overall FDI inflow, it ranks as the fourth-largest sector in terms of FDI inflows. In India, the teledensity is 84.69% overall. One key measure of telecom penetration is teledensity, which is the number of phones per 100 people. Additionally, from 61.66 MB in March 2014 to 17.36 GB in March 2023, the average monthly data consumption per wireless data subscriber has grown. So it was necessary to introduce essential reforms according to the requirements of present times. 

When proposing the bill Union Minister for Communications, Electronics and Information Technology,  Ashwini Vaishnaw stated that the bill will amend and consolidate the law relating to development, expansion, and operation of telecommunication services and telecommunication networks, assignment of spectrum, and for connected matters. The law will replace the Indian Telegraph Act (1885) and the Wireless Telegraphy Act (1933). Industry associations like the Broadband India Forum (BIF) and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) applauded the bill, but three main concerns were raised by privacy and technology activists and some Members of Parliament. They are the inclusion of online services including OTT messaging, strict user verification requirements, and worries about increased surveillance.

The bill proposes that prior authorization from the central government will be required to provide telecommunication services, establish, operate, maintain, or expand telecommunications networks, or possess radio equipment. Also, existing licenses will continue to be valid for the period of their grant, or for five years, where the period is not specified.

In addition to this, Spectrum will be assigned by auction, except for specified uses, where it will be allocated on an administrative basis. These include purposes such as national security and defense, 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 also permit the sharing, trading, leasing, and surrender of spectrum. The Bill introduces provisions for allocating spectrum to satellite Internet providers like OneWeb (supported by Bharti) and U.S.-based companies such as SpaceX’s Starlink.

There is a provision in the bill that 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 which include: security of the state, prevention of incitement of offenses, or public order. Telecom services may be suspended on similar grounds. The government may take temporary possession of any telecom infrastructure, network, or services in the occurrence of any public emergency or public safety. An officer authorized by the government may search premises or vehicles for possession of unauthorized telecom networks or equipment. 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. While all these provisions will help ensure public safety and national security there is also fear of surveillance in this.

The Bill has removed over-the-top (OTT) services and apps from the definition of telecommunication services, providing relief to communication service providers such as WhatsApp and Telegram. The Ministry of Electronics and IT will handle the regulation of OTT apps under the potential Digital India Act, not included in the Telecom Bill.

The Bill specifies various criminal and civil offenses. Providing telecom services without authorization, or gaining unauthorized access to a telecom network or data, are punishable with imprisonment of up to three years, a fine of up to two crore rupees, or both. Breaching terms and conditions of authorization is punishable with a civil penalty of up to five crore rupees. Possessing unauthorized equipment, or using an unauthorized network or service, is punishable with a penalty of up to ten lakh rupees.

The adjudication process will include the central government appointing an adjudicating officer of the rank of joint secretary and above to conduct inquiries and pass orders against civil offenses under the Bill. Orders of the adjudicating officer may be appealed before the Designated Appeals Committee within 30 days. Appeals against the orders of the Committee, in connection to the breach of terms and conditions, may be filed with the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) within 30 days.

With all these provisions under its belt, the Bill is well intended with a focus on national security and public safety. However, concerns have been raised by various civil society sections that the bill is nothing but a repackaging of old law with no clarity on its application to internet services.

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