Standing Committee moots Communications Act

NEW DELHI: India may soon realise its dream of being the second country in the world to have a legislation in place for the convergence era, after Malaysia.

The piece of legislation envisages a super-regulator for the sectors of IT, telecom and broadcasting.

A parliamentary committee on Wednesday recommended that the Communications Convergence Bill, which seeks to harness the benefits of converged technologies in IT, telecom and broadcast media, be enacted as the Communications Act. "The committee is of the opinion that convergence is already a reality and in view of the long term relevance of the provisions of the Bill, the enactment should be termed as a Communication Act to avoid redundancy of the term convergence later," the Standing Committee on IT, headed by Somnath Chatterjee, has said in its latest report on the Communications Convergence Bill.

However, it is not clear whether this is the final report of the Standing Committee or is just an interim report.

The Communications Convergence Bill 2001 was referred to the Standing Committee for examining the various issues after being introduced in Parliament. The suggestions made by the panel are recommendatory in nature and not binding on the government for action.

On the proposed super-regulator Communications Commission of India (CCI), the committee has noted that while the members of the Commission were to be appointed by the Central government from amongst persons recommended by a search committee, the composition of the proposed committee was not mentioned in the statute. Stating that the composition of the Search Committee should be provided in the Act itself, it has suggested the Search Committee should comprise the Vice-President, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha (Lower House), the Ministers of Communication & IT, Information & Broadcasting, leaders of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha (Upper House) and the chairman of the Standing Commitee on IT.

The committee also felt that the number of part-time members in CCI can be reduced by increasing the number of full-time members and in this regard a need has been felt by the Department of Telecom to have flexibility at the Commission level. Touching upon the proposal for a Spectrum Management Committee to be chaired by the cabinet secretary, the standing committee said the cabinet secretary with his diverse responsibilities and pre-occupations may not be able to devote the required time and attention in chairing the spectrum management group, which in turn may result in delay in allocation.

"Spectrum management being a highly complex and technical work, should be better left to the overall guidance of a professional in that area," it said. Pointing out certain overlapping provisions in relation to assignment and interference in spectrum matters which could "lead to confusion", it said the divergence in various spectrum related provisions should be removed and the role and functions of the Central government, CCI and Spectrum Manager should be unambiguously spelt out.

Touching on a particular clause of the Bill that provided for exempting any person or class of persons from payment of licence fee or registration fee in "public interest", by the Central government, the Committee rejected DoT's view that it should not be construed as being against the underlying principles of promoting a competitive environment. "The committee cannot subscribe to the statement made by the department, because any exemption from payment of licence or registration fee to any person or class of persons, even if accorded in public interest, can lead to situations such as inadvertently going against the underlying principle of promoting a competitive environment," it said.

The committee also enquired whether the term "media" referred to in the Bill covered print media also, and it was clarified that "media" was meant as "carriage". The committee said the connotation of the word media as referred to in the Bill, should be clarified in the Bill itself, in order to avoid confusion. "The committee further desires the government to see whether the cable service operators can be allowed to continue to operate on the basis of registration as is the present practice in order to obviate any apprehension of possible extinction of small cable operators in case the licensing regime was introduced for them," the Committee said.

However, for providing any additional services such as Internet telephony, they may be brought under a corresponding licensing regime as envisaged under the Bill, it said. On the proposed Communication Appellate Tribunal, which would hear appeals against decisions or orders of the CCI, the standing committee on IT rejected DoT's submission that being a judicial process, a specific time-limit may not be possible to be adhered to. "The committee feels that 60 days is a sufficient period in which Appellate Tribunal should be able to dispose of an appeal filed by any person aggrieved by a decision or order of the Commission," it said.

Stating that it was not convinced by DoT's logic relating to qualification criteria for members of the tribunal, the Committee said the qualification should not be restricted to a Judge of a High Court alone. "It should be widened to include those who also are eligible to become a judge in high court," it said while recommending suitable amendments. Opinion was divided in the committee about the desirability of having a Communication Commission of India at this stage with a section expressing apprehensions that instead of being a facilitator in the growth of IT, the Commission may turn out to be a regulator and decelerate the growth of the industry. They were of the view this sector should be left alone to develop itself by regulation and asserted that government intervention was not at all desirable.

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