TRAI Chairmanship: An onerous responsibility fraught with delicate diplomacy & balancing acts

NEW DELHI: For any bureaucrat assigned to an autonomous organization under any Ministry, the biggest problem is to ensure smooth functioning between the Ministry and the organization.

Even as Ram Sewak Sharma, a 1978-batch IAS officer of Jharkhand cadre who is currently serving as secretary in the Department of Electronics and Information Technology appears to be the favourite for the hotseat of chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), he is one of over seventy-five contenders who reportedly include Information and Broadcasting secretary Bimal Julka.

Erstwhile chairman Rahul Khullar had taken charge of the regulatory body on 14 May 2012, and demitted office earlier this month on 13 May.

TRAI had been established under an Act of Parliament to deal with telecom issues, but was given additional charge of broadcasting just over a decade earlier. Even though it appears to have handled broadcasting issues with fair competence, the bent of mind of the officials in the regulator is still towards telecom.

Convergence: A delicate balancing act

The task for the seventh chairman of TRAI becomes even more onerous: he has to ensure smooth coordination with two Ministries. Even though TRAI technically falls under the Communication and Information Technology Ministry, it has to also work at tandem with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. 

This balance between the two Ministries becomes crucial, considering that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government is again talking about convergence at a time when two of the primary players who were involved on this issue a decade earlier when the matter had come up – to utter failure - are still in the cabinet. Arun Jaitley then headed Law and now heads the Finance and I&B Ministries, whereas Sushma Swaraj, who was then in charge of I&B Minister is now in External Affairs. In that round, the late Pramod Mahajan as Communications Minister was also part of the Group of Ministers headed by then Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha.

The fact remains that convergence is bound to become a hotly debated subject during the tenure of the new chairman, and a lot of diplomacy will be required to balance the demands of the two ministries.

Digital India and Broadband

Even as a lot has been heard about programmes on Digital India and Make in India with little tangible showing so far in telecom and broadcasting, one of the greatest challenges the new incumbent will have to face is ensuring the growth of broadband.

At present, India is at the 89th position in Network Readiness Index with countries like Singapore, Finland and Sweden having become leaders and by TRAI’s own admission the broadband connectivity is abysmally low with just 99.2 million subscribers by March this year. 

In view of this, the government's ambitious national broadband plan to connect as many as 2.5 lakh villages through optic fibre appears to be too far-fetched and even came in for sharp criticism from outgoing chairman Khullar, who termed the move as "impossible" to implement and something that is bound to "fail." In fact, he said a plan to connect the entire country at one go is not the right way of providing broadband connectivity to all.

Broadcasting Sector

Expectedly, TRAI will need to not only strengthen its broadcasting team but also ensure greater coordination among officers in both broadcasting and telecom. This is also obvious from the number of policy decisions with regard to broadcasting, which have been taken to the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Addressable System and the Courts.

The primary challenge that TRAI faces in broadcasting is to establish its credibility of being impartial and not playing into the hands of the broadcasting lobby. The cable operators and independent multi-system operators have been crying hoarse over this issue, often leading to litigation.

In fact, the regulator has had to backtrack several times in the recent past, either on its own or because of Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) and court decisions and hopes the Supreme Court will come to its aid.

A day after Khullar laid down office, TRAI on 13 May announced that amendments to its tariff orders issued on 1 October, 2004 and 21 July, 2010, which had been set aside by TDSAT earlier this month would be subject to the outcome of the appeal filed by the regulator before the Supreme Court.

The two amendments made by the TRAI to its tariff orders that aimed at preventing broadcasters from giving their channels directly to the subscribers and putting commercial subscriber at par with ordinary subscribers were struck down by TDSAT on 9 March.

TDSAT said TRAI must now undertake a fresh exercise ‘on a completely clean slate. It must put aside the earlier debates on the basis of which it has been making amendments in the three principal tariff orders none of which has so far passed judicial scrutiny. It must consider afresh the question whether commercial subscribers should be treated equally as home viewers for the purpose of broadcasting services tariff or there needs to be a different and separate tariff system for commercial subscribers or some parts of that larger body. It is hoped and expected that TRAI will issue fresh tariff orders within six months from to-day.’

On 16 May, TRAI failed to get a stay from the Supreme Court of the order of TDSAT setting aside the amendments in two tariff orders, which had sought to put an inflation-linked hike of 27.5 per cent on addressable and non-addressable systems.

The regulator also failed to get permission to take action against television channels violating its diktat of a total of 12 minutes of commercial and promotional advertisements every hour, though all broadcasters were asked to keep records of this by the Delhi High Court.

Despite announcements, there has been little progress in the Make in India campaign as far as indigenous set top boxes for digital addressable systems go and most consumers have to put up with Chinese or other boxes.

Similarly, analogue transmission continues in many parts of the cities and towns that have gone digital and the Government failed to get the stay of Digital Addressable Systems (DAS) in Chennai vacated.

The subscription charges for the average consumer under DAS still continues to create confusion as far as free to air and pay channels go and that is the primary reason for the LCO's inability to do proper billing - giving a reason for the broadcaster to complain.

The Direct-to-Home (DTH) sector also complains about the fee charged by the Ministry, which they say makes it difficult for them to continue or earn profits.

Both Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) and headend-in-the-sky (HITS) are still considered nascent technologies despite having been around for some years, and TRAI will have to find ways to encourage their growth, particularly in the face of smartphones which can receive live TV signals for which they often pay nothing.

While the nation is talking about digital technology, Prasar Bharati feels that Frequency Modulation, which is an analogue technology, should be promoted until the nation is read for digital radio sets. This seems to militate against the crores of rupees spent by All India Radio (AIR) in Digital Radio Mondiale technology. Though TRAI has not interfered as it is a matter between the I&B Ministry and the public service broadcaster, it may have to do so if digitization has to succeed.

Both the Government and TRAI have been announcing that e-auctions of the first batch of Phase III FM would begin in May but the month is almost at an end and no date has been fixed yet.

Telecom Sector

The new chairman would be taking charge at a time when the telecom sector is facing major turmoil with the emergence of over-the-top (OTT) operators. While the broadcasting community appears to be happy as the communication OTT will help popularize its programmes, the cellular operators feel OTT will affect their revenues adversely. The TRAI consultation paper also touched upon net neutrality, which is bound to gain controversy in the era of convergence.

If the successor is Sharma, then his task will become even more challenging as it is bound to militate against the post he has been holding until now and where he had in fact set up a committee on the same subject even as a Parliamentary Committee is also considering this issue.

Spectrum and the inability of the government to auction the entire spectrum available in the last e-auction – with 12 per cent remaining unsold - is bound to trouble the regulator. Added to that is the fact that despite the fact that the last e-auction was held in the tenure of the present government, Minister Prasad recently assuring the industry that the auction of spectrum in the future too would be conducted in a timely, fair and transparent way.

Even as 3G is still to become a success, the regulator has been asked to look at 4G at a time when many telecom service providers are facing problems.

Other challenges in telecom include extending the mobile network to rural India, and a debate whether India is ready for Virtual Network Operators.

Clearly, the new chairman has to burn the midnight oil and at the same time avoid heartburn as he goes about his task of resolving the multifarious tasks before him.

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