Convergence bill rakes up opposition from entertainment industry

The entertainment industry has stressed the need for its involvement in the formulation of the Communications Commission of India (CCI), which is to be set up under the proposed Convergence Bill.

Top guns of the Indian entertainment industry strongly opposed the Bill, at the Confederation of Indian Industry's ICE Summit held in Kolkata recently. The bill, they said, will give the government sweeping powers to control the sector and shackle it.

The Bill, which is the government's response to the growing convergence of broadcasting, communications and information technology, proposes the establishment of the CCI, which will regulate both the carriage and content of the various forms of communication. The Bill gives unlimited powers and functions to the CCI, including management of the commercial uses of the frequency spectrum, licensing, tariff-setting, promotion of competition, protection of consumer interests, and formulation of programmes and advertising codes.

It will make the CCI the super regulator in the context of convergence of telecommunications, broadcasting, data communication, multi-media and other related technologies and services. A Spectrum Management Committee, headed by a cabinet secretary, will be set up under the proposed bill, to look after the frequency spectrum, and to make available for the CCI as much spectrum as possible. The Bill also proposes the establishment of a Communications Appellate Tribunal, which will entertain appeals of CCI decisions.

The bill will repeal five existing laws-The Indian Telegraph Act,1885, Cable TV Networks Act, 1995, Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act,1933, The Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950 and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act. Licenses will be provided to five categories: network infrastructure services, networking services, network application services, content application services, and value-added network application services.

However, the CCI would not work in an autonomous manner, as the bill provides for immense control of the government, says UTV Net Solutions CEO Biren Ghose. "The definition of a public service broadcaster was not clear in the bill, besides everything would be in the hands of the government." Another issue, which was raised at one of the ICE sessions was that the government would be the final authority in deciding the members of the CCI.

Says Ghose: "Another drawback is that there is no level playing field with DD, which as the official public broadcaster is given monopoly of terrestrial broadcasts. For more than a decade, the television industry has been its own rational self regulator with nothing against it, so what is the need for a super regulator today? And why should the government be the authority to decide what the content will be? "

Discussions at the summit also touched upon clause 29 of the proposed bill, which requires all agreements of broadcasters to be registered with the commission. "Agreements are confidential in nature, and no broadcaster would like to reveal the nature of the deal or revenue sharing arrangements reached with media partners, especially to a government organization. In revealing all this to a government body, one could as well publish everything in the papers, considering how accessible the Indian bureaucracy is," says Ghose.

Several participants at the summit lambasted the bill for favouring the government, which will have the right to intervene in the committee's functioning and the power to exempt anyone from licensing. For the rest, a license would be needed for practically any service, Ghose points out.

Among the industry's objections is the Bill's stipulation that the CCI follow all policies and other directives of the government, not allowing any real autonomy to the CCI. Speakers at the summit said that while there is total agreement that the government should have the full authority to determine spectrum management for defence and security, the rest of the spectrum should be allocated to the entertainment industry in a fair manner.

Ghose says a single body, the CCI, should be able to handle everything on its own and that there is no need for separate bodies. The industry has asked for appointments to be made to the CCI from among an open pool of competent persons and not from a panel of government secretaries, to bring in a sense of professionalism and competitiveness in the industry. The jurisdictional aspects of the CCI and the adjudicating officer are also vaguely defined and need to be clarified, industry sources say.

Says Ghose, "We are creating a Communication Convergence bill to change 200 years of legislation. Here is an opportunity for the government and the industry to reach a common proper framework; the industry's voice needs to be heard."

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