telecom

Telecom Bill, 2023 tabled in the Lok Sabha: Key highlights

telecom

Union Electronics & Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on Monday tabled the Telecommunications Bill, 2023 in Lok Sabha. The bill aims to amend and consolidate laws relating to the development, expansion, and operation of telecommunication services and telecommunications network assignment of spectrum and more.

The new bill will reportedly replace archaic telecom laws namely Indian Telegraph Act 1885, Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act 1933, and Telegraph Wires Act 1950.

It’s worth noting that the Telecommunications Bill, 2023 has been introduced as a financial bill, which means it does not need to be cleared by Rajya Sabha, though it can make recommendations.

Shortly after the bill was tabled, Ritesh Pandey of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) said in the Lok Sabha that labeling the Telecommunications Bill, 2023 as money bill will keep it outside the scrutiny of Rajya Sabha. He also sought that it should be tabled as an ordinary bill.

That said, the government has also set a definition for the telecommunication which it refers to “…transmission, emission or reception of any messages, by wire, radio, optical or other electro-magnetic systems, whether or not such messages have been subjected to rearrangement, computation or other processes by any means in the course of their transmission, emission or reception.”

Here messages mean “any sign, signal, writing, text, image, sound, video, data stream, intelligence or information sent through telecommunication.” This is likely to bring all kinds of internet-based services under the ambit of telecom laws.

Moreover, the new telecom bill brings a host of drastic changes for the industry. One of the focus areas is national security.

For instance, the government can take temporary possession of any telecommunication service or telecommunication network from an authorised entity in the case of any public emergency, including disaster management. Or, it can provide for an appropriate mechanism to ensure that messages of a user or group of users authorised for response and recovery during a public emergency are routed on priority.

The bill also conditionally exempts journalists from interception.

“…press messages, intended to be published in India, of correspondents accredited to the Central Government or a State Government shall not be intercepted or detained unless their transmission is specifically prohibited by order,” it adds.

Though, in the case of the public emergency or in the interest of public safety, the government can direct “any message or class of messages, to or from any person or class of persons, to or from any telecommunication equipment or class of telecommunication equipment, or relating to any particular subject, brought for transmission by, or transmitted or received by any telecommunication service or telecommunication network, shall not be transmitted, or shall be intercepted or detained, or shall be disclosed in intelligible format to the officer mentioned in such order…”

Similarly, it calls for  procurement of telecommunication equipment and telecommunication services only from trusted sources. This particular provision can be seen in the context of the crisis faced by the Indian telecom industry in the aftermath of the geo-political tensions between India and China in 2020.

Another one of the most talked about provisions under the new bill is use of biometric-based identification for providing telecom services to users.

The government has been making several efforts, including using AI and supercomputers, to tackle the menace of obtaining phone numbers using fake or forged documents. In May, the IT minister said a tool called ASTR (an acronym for Artificial Intelligence and Facial Recognition powered Solution for Telecom SIM Subscriber Verification) was deployed to assess more than 87 crore mobile connections in its ‘first phase’. Of the 87 crore mobile connections assessed, a total of 40.87 lakh suspected connections were detected.

You can read more about the bill here (pdf).

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