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"There would be a lot on TRAI's plate in 2017" - RS Sharma

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RS Sharma, chief regulator of India’s telecoms and broadcast carriage services, is a plain-speaking person who doesn’t mince words. He is forthright inhis thoughts on the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)’s role, which, according to several reiterations, is work towards creating a regulatory environment to remove ambiguities and litigations. While doing so, if the regulator has over-reached, Sharma says, he and his colleagues are willing to correct themselves if stakeholders convince them of their viewpoints as part of a healthy and democratic process of debateand discussions.

A senior-level bureaucrat, whose last assignment in the government was Secretary, Department of Electronics and Information Technology, Sharma as the Chairman of TRAI is convinced that pressures notwithstanding, it’s the job of a regulator to be not only technology agnostic, but also stakeholder-neutral in its efforts to create a level-playing field for all for the growth of telecoms and broadcast sectors. Being tech-savvy (he is one of those in the government who was active on Twitter much before it became a buzzword as a communication tool within government setups) helps in a highly technological world.

Indiantelevision.com’s Consulting Editor Anjan Mitra engages Sharma on various issues and Sharma, true to his self, doesn’t flinch away from answering the queries, even those critical of TRAI’s role.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

As the chief regulator what would be your overview of the telecom and the broadcast sectors?

Both the sectors are very vibrant in our country.  In the telecoms sector, we have almost a billion plus people connected through mobile phones and other devices. However, we need to essentially now focus on the issue of data speed and availability. In this regard we have already given various recommendations to the government, both in the wireless as also in the fixed line segments.

The focus is on implementation of Bharat Net (taking broadband to all parts of India, including rural areas, via fibre optics), promotion of digital cable TV for supply of broadband, facilitating an environment for creating Wi-Fi hotspots and liberalizing the satellite bandwidthregime so satellites can also be used to provide broadband services, which also means an Open Sky policy. All these initiatives,if implemented, are expected to increase availability and improvement of internet infrastructure for the people of this country, which is the first most important prerequisite of Digital India --- broadband as a utility to the citizens. We see telecom space developin that direction.

The broadcasting sector too is vibrant where we now have about 900 plus TV channels, which have a wide range of programming catering to a wide section of the people through various delivery platforms. Fortunately, by the end of this calendar year, the fourth phase of digitization (of TV services) could be completedwhere all stakeholders have contributed and participated equally. We should also not forget the Indian TV network is one of the largest networks in the world and when it gets fully digitized, it would be a real achievement.

So, to facilitate further smoothening of the digitization path, we would be bringing out three important guidelines on issues relating to tariff, interconnection and quality of service. After having worked almost through the year (2016) and examining the broadcast and cable sector comprehensively, the final guidelines on the three issues would be issued that will herald a new, but common framework for all platforms.

When are these final guidelines likely to be issued by TRAI now that legal hurdles to implementation of digitization or DAS have been cleared by courts?

The final recommendations will be issued at the end of this month, which will also coincide with end of this year and the guidelines, hopefully, will bring about more harmony in the TV sector and various delivery platforms prevalent in the country.

At TRAI, we can only create an environment for TV (carriage) services, while it’s the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB)’s role to actually push networks and stakeholders to adhere to the digital deadlines and enforce the schedule. But we are ready to provide any assistance to MIB if asked for.

(This interview was taken earlier in December after the Delhi High Court had dismissed all cases relating to extension of  deadline of Phase III of digitization. Subsequently on December 23, 2016, MIB extended the deadline for Phase IV of DASto 31 March, 2017 owing to uncertainties in the market.  The last and fourth phase was to have been completed on 31 December, 2016. Same day, Madras High Court passed an interim order, valid till next hearing mid-January 2017, directing TRAI to maintain status quo and refrain from issuing any further guidelines relating to the broadcast sector, especially if those guidelineshad any bearing on copyright issues raised by petitioner Star India and Vijay TV, amongst other things.)

A regulator’s job is to be a facilitator and help create a business environment that’s win-win for all stakeholders. But why is it that many directives and guidelinesare legally challenged by the industry?

Everybody in this country has a right to take recourse to legal help and I would not like to comment at all on the issue as to why our directives are challenged by the industry. However, all that I would say is that there is a due process of law and which takes care of many such issues. While many of our directives are upheld by the courts and TDSAT(the Telecoms Disputes Settlement & Appellate Tribunal), some of them are struck down too. It’s a process available to Indians under the Constitution.

What were the underlying objectives of TRAI when it started drafting a new set of guidelines for the broadcast and cable sector?

Our main objective --- and purpose for all guidelines for both the broadcast and telecoms sectors --- is to reduce ambiguity in regulations. The broadcast segment is no exception.The aim is to create a kind of regulatory environment where there is less ambiguity and lesser scope for litigations. Litigations take place because of ambiguity (in rules and regulations).Especially in the broadcasting sector there are no or few contracts (amongst stakeholders), which result in people going to courts of law. So, TRAI is trying to streamlinethe sector. It is not only the TRAI regulations that are (legally) challenged, but stakeholdersalso litigate amongst themselves. We want to create a much more rational level playing field for all stakeholders, including the consumer.

However critics, including domestic and foreign industry bodies, say TRAI ends up over regulating. What do you have to say about this criticism?

In sectors where there are multiple stakeholders litigating amongst themselves, somebody will have to establish basic rules. If stakeholders interact among themselves without any rules, that is fine with us. However, we also have to understand that the most important stakeholder in all this is the consumer and it should not happen that the consumer ultimately is the sufferer. Though TRAI doesn’t believe in unnecessary regulations, at the same time some regulation defining the playing area isnecessary for an orderly growth of the industry.

When industry bodies do benchmarking of Indian regulations versus FCC or Ofcom or some other Asian markets, India and China emerge as highly regulated markets. Comment.

I don’t want to comment on those benchmarks as I am not really aware of them or the methodology used. But I certainly don’t agree that we are regulating when regulation is not necessary. We also believe in minimal regulation. Because of high level of litigation-related activities happening in the Indian broadcast sector, we feel there is a need to clarify issues. It is better to have some basic rules of the game rather than having ambiguous situations, which results into too many litigations and waste of time.

So, you feel the draft broadcast regulations are aimed at streamlining the sector and bring about more transparency?

Certainly yes and that’s what we hope will be achieved ultimately. Recent courtjudgments have also clearly held that the processes in this kind of interconnection environment should be transparent. So, less ambiguity and more transparency are two guiding principles that have helped us in draftingthose regulations, though we are still open to amendments.

Why is the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF)critical of many TRAI stands if the regulatory bodyis working towards transparency?

We have had very intense and vibrant engagement with the industry on all the consultation papers.Stakeholders’ comments have been very precise and in a way it has been an enriching experience for TRAI. So, as and when we do come out with final recommendations, we hope to have plugged any loopholes in the drafts.Every stakeholder has a right to be critical and IBF too is expressing its views. I think it is all part of a healthy democratic and transparent process of interaction.

What is TRAI’s stand on new technologies being introduced in the telecom and broadcast sectors?

Our view on technology is that we must promote innovation and technology in these sectors. We should not try to throttle them (new techs) just because there are legacy business models. Business models must adapt to technology, rather than technology being stifled in order to protect business models. That essentially has been our approach to technology.

There’s lot of fusion taking place in the technological world and India must not shy away from embracing them. For example, in certain countries 4G is passé and they are talking about 5G, which too would ultimately arrive in India. As both our telecom and broadcast and cable networks would be one of the largest in the world soon, if infrastructure development is robust, why should India or its consumers be five years behind in technology and be deprived of latest marvels of technology? As a developing country we need technology more. Reason is simple: a better technology is not only cost-effective, but also helps in more productive use of resources. Technology will help the country in more efficient use of bandwidth, for example, which is not a commodity that’s in unlimited supply.

Why then a new content delivery tech like OTT, for example,is being attempted to be regulated with a legacy mindset?

TRAI is not looking at any extra regulation as we feel regulations, in general, should be technology agnostic. However, if there are any barriers to adoption of a technology, TRAI would try to either remove those or work towards relaxing those barriers. For example, there is a consultation paper on sharing of infrastructure in the broadcasting sector. At present,sharing of infrastructure is not permitted essentially because of certain licence conditions. On this issue,we feel --- though final recommendations are awaited--- a broadcast carriage company need not necessarily share infrastructure even after TRAI comes out with guidelines.But if there is a condition in thelicence that prohibits sharing, we may, probably, have to relax those conditions. Our broader approach is if some licence conditions stop a business from optimal utilization of resources, we should try to remove such regulatory barriers.

We should facilitate adoption of new technologies, not really regulate or mandate them. If there are regulatory barriers, then appropriate action for introduction of newer technologies should be taken.

Though TRAI has dealt with it in a piecemeal fashion earlier, what is the regulator’s overall stand on the contentious issue of Net Neutrality?

We have already dealt with the issue of Net Neutrality from the zero tariff perspective sometime in February. Now the government has asked us to provide it with comprehensive recommendations on the issue. We are in the process of further studying the feedback from people and stakeholders on the issue after which some additional consolations would take place. As the drafting of our final position may take a couple of months more, I am unable to spell out TRAI’s stand on Net Neutrality at this point of time. But I hope it should suffice when I say TRAI is not against any new technology whether it is OTT or 5G or anything else.

Q: Earlier, you referred to an issue relating to Open Sky policy aimed at making leasing of capacity on Indian and foreign satellites liberal. That matter is not moving within the government. Any comment?

I don’t want to comment on that as ultimately it is for the government to act on TRAI’s recommendations. We have recommended a number of times (in favour of a more liberalized satellite policy).On such policy matters, it’s the government’s prerogative to take some action. However, TRAI will keep tracking the issue. But there’s no denying for the success of Digital India, providing broadband via satellites in difficult geographical terrains like India’s North-Eastern states is a crucial aspect. But on such matters the government’s decision is final.

Don’t you think that the time has come for India to have a comprehensive convergence law and a fully converged regulator?

I certainly agree we need to, probably, have alaw on convergence. But I am not the competent authority to comment on such a regulatory regime’s structure and mandate as it is the government’s job and prerogative to do so. However, I do feel because of technological developments, a lot of convergence is happening in various sectors, including telecom and broadcast segments. Probably, we need to revisit our regulatory structures. But, as I said earlier, it is the government’s prerogative.

As the chief regulator you must be coming in for pressure from many sides, including political. How do you keep yourself neutral?

For the last 15-16 months that I have been at TRAI, I have not been subject to any pressure. I am very happy that we at TRAI are doingour job of being a facilitator and see that both the segments grow in an unhindered fashion.

What would are the achievements of TRAI in 2016 and what is the agenda for 2017?

As we are not an operation agency, we don’t have quantifiable targets,unlike the Aadhaar (unique identity for Indians) project, of which I was a crucial part, where we had a measurable target of for a particular period of time.TRAI primarily has three functions. Function No. 1 is to advise government on issues referred to us. Function No. 2 is that TRAI can also take up issues suo moto and advise the government accordingly. Function No. 3 is to issue regulations related to tariff. I think, we have discharged our duty in a satisfactory manner during 2016.

What we plan to do in 2017 is something interesting. While there will be always issues that willneed TRAI’s urgent attention --- for example, the government may ask foradvice on spectrum prices --- we are trying to create a calendar for the next year. So we hope by the end of this year we will come up with calendar highlighting the works that need to be taken up in 2017 and which will act as a roadmap.

What are the issues likely to figure in that roadmap?

There are many issues. For example, various issues relating to data and bandwidth are important and TRAI would like to examine those, including data and  consumer protection. Then there are matters like Internet of Things (IoT) and other new areas where our approach will always remain to regulate minimally. I would also like TRAI to take up the implementation of the framework that we are putting in place for the broadcast sector. Then there are issues like audience measurement and digital terrestrial broadcasting. There would be lots on the plate in 2017 for TRAI.

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