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Interview with Ram Sewak Sharma, Chairman, TRAI

February 24, 2017
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The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has played a significant role in shaping the telecom sector. Effective functioning of the authority has created a supportive regulatory environment, which has resulted in exponential subscriber growth and overall customer benefit in terms of choice of services, affordable tariffs and service quality. During 2016, TRAI continued to engage actively with the industry. While it managed to initiate consultations and discussions on key matters such as public Wi-Fi services, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, quality of services and internet telephony for rural areas, it struggled with issues such as interconnection. In an interview with tele.net, Ram Sewak Sharma, chairman, TRAI, speaks about the key regulatory moves in the past year, TRAI’s stance on prevailing issues and the announcements the industry can expect in the coming months. Excerpts…

How would you rate the performance of the telecom sector in 2016? Have most of the outstanding regulatory issues been resolved?

The sector has performed very well and competition in the industry has begun heating up again. Resolving regulatory issues is a continuous process. In a service industry like telecom, new issues such as those related to consumers and quality of service (QoS) crop up frequently. The good news is that all stakeholders, including the industry and the government, have been working towards ensuring a better consumer experience and service.

What were the key regulatory initiatives taken by TRAI in 2016?

The basic task cut out for TRAI is to regulate. We are regulating issues like interconnection and QoS. We have also released consultations on upcoming matters including internet telephony, M2M communications, and internet of things (IoT). Technology is evolving at a rapid pace, throwing up fresh challenges for the regulator.

What has been TRAI’s stance on net neutrality and how has it changed over time?

TRAI believes that net neutrality is extremely important for a country like India because we have a very healthy ecosystem of innovation, and several smaller players and services are riding on telecom networks. For instance, banking services are of critical importance but banking service providers do not own networks. Similarly, there are a number of applications including e-health and e-education that ride on telecom networks. So, it is important that the network and the internet are open platforms where people are able to develop applications. Telecom networks have to allow access to the platform in an open, transparent and non-discriminatory manner.

Thus, in February 2016, we issued a regulation prohibiting the discriminatory treatment of data on the internet. The government has now asked us to give comprehensive recommendations on net neutrality, for which we have issued a consultation paper. We hope that by the end of this consultation process, we will be able to deliver a comprehensive recommendation to the government on the issue.

Also, the telecom industry is not the only stakeholder in the issue of net neutrality. There are multiple other stakeholders such as content providers, application developers and network providers. So, before making any decision, we must take into account the views of all stakeholders.

TRAI has been very active on the issue of QoS. What has been the journey on that front so far?

In October 2015, TRAI had issued a regulation on call drops, wherein we had said that telecom service providers should compensate their subscribers at the rate of Re 1 per dropped call, subject to a maximum of three calls per day. The rule was challenged by the industry in the Delhi High Court. While the high court upheld our regulation, the industry moved the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the order. The apex court then struck it down on various grounds. According to the Supreme Court order, TRAI does not have certain powers. Therefore, we have asked the government to grant TRAI appropriate powers that would enable us to discharge the functions assigned to us.

Second, we have started consultation on whether the QoS norms need to be revisited. The stipulation of a 2 per cent call drop in a service area over a period of a month is very generic and masks the variations that might be present across cities.

Third, for ensuring transparency, we conduct drive tests across cities and publish those results on our website. As we know, data has emerged as the key growth driver in the telecom sector. However, QoS parameters with respect to data services are not very satisfactory. In order to transparently track these parameters, we have developed the MySpeed App that uses the crowd sourcing method to gather data. We also have developed an application that provides tower-wise data on call drops. These results are published on TRAI’s analytics portal for all stakeholders to view.

How far has the regulator been successful in resolving the interconnect issue among operators?

We have been monitoring that issue since the very beginning. There was an unacceptable level of call failures at the point of interconnect. We don’t see it as a problem among only two or three operators; it is in fact a larger issue of consumer QoS. Consumers have a right to quality service, irrespective of the operator they are subscribing to. Therefore, call failures above the benchmark are a point of major concern for us.

What has been the progress on the roll-out of public Wi-Fi in the country?

For a country like India, Wi-Fi is extremely important. In a situation where people do not have access to fixed line infrastructure and data is costly, Wi-Fi is the best instrument for providing internet connectivity to the masses. However, there are currently two pain points with regard to its roll-out.  First, every time users connect to a public Wi-Fi, they need to authenticate themselves. Second, we need to develop a model wherein public Wi-Fi services are paid for because free Wi-Fi, in my opinion, is not sustainable. We need to put in place a nationwide Wi-Fi grid such that users will need to authenticate their identity only once. Moreover, users can also attach a payment instrument to their account so that seamless payments can be made to the operator.

The country is witnessing an unprecedented increase in demand for data, and wireless technology alone will not be able to cater to this demand. Therefore, we must create fixed line infrastructure as well. To enable this, we have put forward some recommendations to the government. First, we have recommended that digital cable TV infrastructure should be used to provide broadband. This is already happening in many countries as cable TV infrastructure is much more robust and offers better speeds at much less cost. Moreover, the right-of-way problems have already been solved by the local cable operators. Second, we have suggested that the government expedite the BharatNet programme through public-private partnerships. Third, the open sky policy enunciated in the National Telecom Policy 2012 should be put into practice.

Ultimately, we must realise that the most important pillar of Digital India is ubiquitous data connectivity and we should leverage all methods available to enable that. As per a study by the International Telecommunication Union, internet penetration in India is around 7 per cent as compared to the global average of 46 per cent. Promoting fixed line technology will be critical for ensuring that the country is able to better its position globally.

What has been the impact of demonetisation on the telecom sector?

Post demonetisation, there has been a huge spurt in the digital transactions space. A number of applications have been launched to enable cashless transactions. These include unified payment interface, Bharat Interface for Money, Aadhaar-enabled payment services that can be done even without a mobile phone, and USSD that can run on feature phones as well. Overall, this is a vibrant space and the telecom industry is playing its part by providing telecom connectivity.

What steps have been taken to encourage internet and telephony services in rural areas?

TRAI gives its recommendations from time to time on the use of the Universal Service Obligation Fund for extending connectivity in rural areas, in the north-eastern region, and in Jammu & Kashmir. Overall, we have given recommendations on BharatNet that will hugely improve connectivity in the rural areas. Recently, TRAI released a consultation paper on free data access in rural areas.

What announcements can be expected from TRAI in the coming months?

TRAI, for the first time, is preparing a schedule of activities/calendar for 2017. There are typically two types of issues - urgent and important. Urgent issues will continue to pop up and we will handle them as and when they arise. But many times, in the quest to follow the urgent issues, we lose sight of important or strategic issues. We have tentatively relayed our thoughts to the industry and will consult it to prepare a list of things we propose to do in the current year. The calendar is expected to be issued shortly.

 
 
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