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TRAI chief defends broadcast tariff order, data protection suggestions

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MUMBAI: The much touted and highly anticipated live session of TRAI Chairman RS Sharma on Twitter yesterday didn’t throw up surprises. The moderator relayed more queries on the telecom sector and very few on the broadcast segment and in the few that were answered, the chief regulator defended his organisation’s stand ably.

One such query relating to the broadcast sector revolved around whether India was a highly regulated market and then sought a status report on TRAI’s latest directives, including those relating to broadcast and cable sector tariff, inter-connect agreement amongst stakeholders and quality of service.

Denying that India was a highly regulated market --- “no case of over-regulation…,” he said --- Sharma pointed out that though the present set of regulations, implemented after almost 18 months, had “seen a lot of litigation”, they were “wonderful” and aimed at ensuring “transparency” in the whole eco-system.

“The customers [of TV services] would benefit,” Sharma emphasised.

For the uninitiated, TRAI’s tariff guidelines, originally issued in 2016, remained mired in legal tangles till earlier this year when Madras High Court upheld the regulator’s contentions. Subsequently, on 3 July 2018 TRAI issued a statement saying as all judicial compliances were completed, its tariff order came into existence with immediate effect. However, the Supreme Court is set to hear a case filed by original petitioners Star India and Vijay TV against the high court order late August. Some confusion still prevails regarding a cap of 15 per cent on prices of TV channels offered by broadcasters as the Chennai court had frowned down on this stipulation.

Coming back to the TRAI on Twitter session, asked about indifferent quality of service relating to mobile broadband, Sharma batted for use of satellites to also deliver broadband services. In fact, in its several recommendations, the regulatory body has pushed for an open sky policy signifying usage of Indian and foreign satellites to deliver a host of services, including television and broadband.

According to the chief regulator, all options of delivering broadband services should be explored, including satellites, cable TV and DTH platforms. Such an approach could also result in bringing down costs, Sharma said in reply to a question on indifferent broadband services in hilly and logistics-challenged areas like the north-eastern part of India.

Queried on the logic behind issuing recommendations on data vis-à-vis its ownership and privacy ahead of a government-mandated panel appointed to look into these issues, Sharma explained it as a necessity as the ecosystem was changing. Currently, India is consuming more data than the US and China put together, he pointed out, adding, therefore, the issue of data security, privacy and ownership had become extremely important.

“If data is flowing, new players have emerged [and] they also have to accept the responsibility and… take care of consumer data. Hence, after the consultation process running for about a year, we came up with this recommendation saying similar kind of rules must apply to the telecom, browser, devices...” Sharma clarified. However, the Justice BN Srikrishna committee, asked by the government to look into issues relating to data, has expressed its displeasure on TRAI recommendations ahead of its own conclusions.

“Justice Srikrishna committee is drafting an…overall data protection law and we have said while there may be general questions relating to data protection, it is important that till that time, apply more or less the same rules of data protection as applicable for telecom service providers,” Sharma defended his organisation’s stand.

Asked about the Apple controversy that proposed strict actions against the US giant as it was not complying with TRAI request on consumer data, Sharma clarified that it had nothing to do with any particular company and termed the situation as “misconstrued” --- “It is totally related to the issue of unsolicited communication,” he added.

Interestingly, through its various apps, aimed at consumer assistance (like checking the broadband speed being provided by the telecom service provider on mobile handsets of consumers), TRAI itself collects huge amount of data, which critics have said could be exploited if leaked.

Asked about the data that the regulator mines and ways its protection is ensured, Sharma said that the organisation has “adopted privacy” as a default mechanism, which ensures data protection of consumers.

The 1978 batch Indian Administrative Service officer Sharma was appointed as TRAI chairman three years ago. His tenure is scheduled to end in August 2018 and the government, according to sources, has received as many as 45 applications for the post that was advertised on the website of Department of Telecoms.

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