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Interview with TRAI's Dr R.S. Sharma

July 26, 2018
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As the telecom sector evolves in terms of growth drivers, business dynamics and market structure, the role of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in  safeguarding consumer interests while ensuring a level-playing field for telecom service providers (TSPs) has become crucial. In this regard, the regulator has been coming out with a number of recommendations over the past few months, the most recent one being its recommendations on data privacy, security and ownership. In an interview with tele.net, Dr Ram Sewak Sharma, chairman, TRAI, talks about the regulator’s priorities and focus areas, key challenges and the way forward...

The draft National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 focuses on accessibility, affordability, inclusiveness and security. What kind of regulatory impetus will be required to meet these objectives?

The Government of India’s flagship programme, “Digital India”, has already started producing results. India’s digital profile and footprint are one of the fastest growing in the world. With over a billion mobile phones and digital identities, and half a billion internet users, the country’s mobile data consumption has become the highest in the world. Over 200 million Indians regularly use social media and in the last year alone, over 200 million people took to mobile banking and digital payments. At the current pace of digitisation and digitalisation, it is estimated that the country’s digital economy could reach $1 trillion by 2025.

On its part, TRAI recommends a light touch, simplified licensing and regulatory framework for internet of things (IoT)/ machine-to-machine (M2M) services to promote research, innovation and coordination among multi-sector stakeholders. Also, spectrum management should be revamped making it transparent, predictable and efficient. Appropriate institutions for the coordinated development of 5G services, IoT/M2M systems, and their security framework need to be created. New spectrum bands for the access and backhaul segments have to be identified and made available for the timely deployment and growth of 5G networks. In order to increase wireline broadband services, just like electricity services, there is a need to review the National Building Code of India to mandate city developers and builders to have a properly demarcated space for housing communication infrastructure in buildings.

The information and communication technology (ICT) market is shifting from local to national, and from national to international. Many internet and data communication dependent services are now delivered from a few regional hubs across the world. In order to make India a global hub for data centres and internet dependent services, we need to put in place enabling policies. The communication networks are also moving towards cloud-based and software-controlled systems. A simple and enabling regulatory framework for the deployment of cloud-based services would propel their use. A clear policy for data ownership, protection, security and cross-border data transfer is a must to achieve these objectives.

The development of “special technology zones” can play the role of a catalyst to spur innovation in indigenous digital platforms, services and applications. Further, in order to enhance the international trade of communication services, we need to increase the focus on content hosting and delivery. India’s commitment to net neutrality principles and a reliable international connectivity using submarine cables can help in attracting large investments in this area.

On the issue of accessibility and inclusiveness, TRAI had initiated a consultation process to discuss and understand the barriers being faced by persons with disabilities (PwDs) in accessing telecom and broadcasting services, so that affirmative action can be taken at the policy level, in the form of recommendations to the government or formulation of regulations and advisory to equipment/service providers or a combination of both. After the completion of the consultation process, the recommendations on “Making ICT Accessible for PwDs” were issued in December 2017. The recommendations included the need to adopt international standards to have accessibility features for PwDs while manufacturing communications devices (mobile handsets, televisions, computers, etc.), and developing assistive tools, services and applications.

What steps is the regulator taking to ensure user data privacy and security? How does the Indian regulatory framework on data privacy compare with that in developed telecom markets?

Over the past few years, we have seen an exponential growth in technology and today, IoT, artificial intelligence (AI) and M2M have become a reality. Voluminous data is being generated whenever a user comes in contact with the digital ecosystem. Since data is ubiquitous in the world today, the issue of protecting the personal data of users is a matter of deep concern for everyone. A large amount of data flows through the telecom networks and TRAI, being an independent regulator for the telecom and broadcasting sector, is sanguine about the importance and magnitude of the issue. To address the issues related to securing the personal data and privacy of telecom consumers, TRAI had initiated a consultation process in August 2017. After careful consideration of the views of all stakeholders, TRAI recently came up with recommendations on “Privacy, Security and Ownership of Data in the Telecom Sector”. TRAI has emphasised that the entities controlling and processing a huge amount of personal data of individual telecom consumers are mere custodians and do not have primary rights over this data. These entities should be restrained from using meta-data to identify individual users. To ensure data protection, TRAI has recommended that a data protection framework should be established and the government should notify a policy framework for the regulation of devices, operating systems, browsers and applications. To ensure user privacy, a national policy for the encryption of personal data generated and collected in the digital eco-system should be notified by the government at the earliest. The Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) has also constituted a committee of experts headed by Justice B.N. Srikrishna to formulate the Comprehensive Data Protection Framework. It is hoped that this framework will be put in place in order to handle data privacy and security-related issues.

How has the public Wi-Fi market progressed in India?

In India at present, mobile data usage is significantly higher than other forms of data usage. This can be attributed to a number of factors including the cost, affordability and reach of fixed line coverage, as well as the few number of public Wi-Fi hotspots. TRAI is aware that India significantly lags behind other countries in terms of providing access to broadband, especially to people in rural areas. Since there is a significant section of the population that is still to be connected, there is a need to take some measures to provide broadband services to the unconnected. This situation highlights the need for better proliferation of Wi-Fi networks that can offer a more affordable and flexible alternative for scaling up internet access. Despite its huge potential, public Wi-Fi service deployment has not taken off in the country. This may be because of the lack of economic viability for providing these services. To enlarge the scope of Wi-Fi service provisioning, it is envisaged that a new set of small players may be included in this space. TRAI had recommended the creation of a framework by establishing public data offices and public data office aggregators to provide Wi-Fi. We hope that TRAI’s recommendations will contribute to the large-scale deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots in the country.

What is your outlook for 5G services in the country?

There are two major factors driving the development of 5G in the country. First, there is a need to support the increasing demand for broadband services delivered over mobile networks and secondly, there is a need to support or create services around IoT/M2M applications. Three main use cases with their respective (and potentially mutually incompatible) demands are in the process of taking shape to meet sector-specific needs. These include massive machine type communications, enhanced mobile broadband, and ultra-reliable and low latency communications.

It is understood that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has set up a committee of stakeholders to work on technology applications. TRAI has received a reference from DoT to finalise the spectrum reserve price, besides other issues related to 5G deployment. We will complete the recommendation process shortly.

What kind of regulatory requirements and challenges will emerge with the growing adoption of next-generation technologies like IoT, AI, cloud and machine learning?

Challenges are bound to emerge due to rapid technological advancements and the introduction of new technologies. To ensure that AI is beneficial to society as its impact grows, more research on safety is needed. This will help us to prepare better and prevent the potentially negative consequences of AI. There is a need to encode fairness, policy, laws and values in AI. Governments around the world are investing in AI and preparing for the changes ahead as this new technology proliferates, and regulators are equipping themselves to meet the challenges. Both IoT and machine learning need AI and the regulatory challenges emerging from these two technologies will be largely similar in nature.

How do you see the in-flight connectivity ecosystem evolving in India? What are the key drivers and challenges?

In-flight connectivity is becoming popular as people want to utilise their flying time to catch up with business activities and remain connected with family and friends. With technological advancement, mobile communication on aircraft (MCA) has also become possible, with more than 30 airlines already offering these services globally. In India, there is a huge potential for the growth of this service. However, there are certain issues, such as the terms and conditions for service provisioning, spectrum allocation, licensing and entry fee, which were highlighted in our recommendations sent to DoT in January 2018.

What are your priorities for safeguarding consumer interests?

One of TRAI’s primary objectives is to safeguard consumer interests. Some of the initiatives taken include making ICT services accessible to persons with disabilities; cost effective, efficient and fair redressal of consumer grievances inter alia through the office of an ombudsman; enhancing consumer outreach, consumer education and awareness, etc. Some of the steps taken by TRAI are mentioned below:

Performance monitoring: Apart from objectively assessing quality of service (QoS) through close monitoring of performance and audit, TRAI has been assessing customer perception of service through surveys. TRAI has laid down seven QoS parameters for assessing customer perception and had conducted a customer satisfaction survey through IVRS in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

Transparency measures: TRAI has launched two apps, MySpeed and MyCall, to assess the customer perception of service. The MySpeed app allows users to report their mobile data experience across the country to the TRAI MySpeed portal. Customers can view the data experience of all TSPs from the MySpeed portal. Meanwhile, the MyCall app is intended to measure the call quality through crowd sourcing. TRAI MyCall is an Android application for crowd sourced voice call quality monitoring. The application allows mobile phone users to rate their experience with voice call quality in real time, helping TRAI gather customer experience data.

Unsolicited commercial communication (UCC): TRAI observed that UCC, made via voice or SMS, is a major nuisance to telecom subscribers. To curb this menace, several initiatives have been taken since 2007. Recently, TRAI identified a few major issues related to UCC and initiated consultation on these. New trends in telemarketing calls have also been noticed, like using auto-diallers for making calls, silent calls and robo-calls. Fraudulent calls or SMS, especially related to finance, banking and trade market investments, have also come to notice. Therefore, , in May 2018, TRAI released the draft Telecom Commercial Communication Customer Preference Regulation, 2018 for seeking comments from stakeholders. This draft regulation is proposed to curb the problem of UCC. The important new features of this regulation are adoption of distributed ledger technology (or blockchain) as the regulatory technology (RegTech) to enforce regulatory compliance while allowing innovation in the market; co-regulation, where telecom service providers/access providers establish and arrange the framework, which is legally backed by regulation; enabling compliance through innovation in technology solutions that are demonstrated in a regulatory sandbox; provision of better control over all entities in the ecosystem and in the flow of commercial communications; and detection of unregistered telemarketers in a more intelligent manner through collaboration.

Going forward, as telecom converges with digital, how will the role of TRAI evolve?

The convergence of voice, video and data services has become a reality now. In order to meet the growing demand for video, it would be necessary to encourage the development of converged broadband and broadcast networks and the development of cloud infrastructure for video-on-demand (VoD) services. While video distribution in broadcast mode can fulfil the needs of masses, VoD can meet the specific requirements of consumers.

The convergence of information, communication, and broadcasting services is creating vast new capabilities that are benefiting individuals, businesses and society as a whole. TRAI is fully aware of the regulatory challenges in a converged era and will be able to address all the issues adequately.


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