The COAI, whose members include Airtel, Reliance Jio, Vodafone and Idea Cellular, has been opposing implementation of Trai's suggestions for public WiFi since 12 April 2017. Photo: Bloomberg
The COAI, whose members include Airtel, Reliance Jio, Vodafone and Idea Cellular, has been opposing implementation of Trai's suggestions for public WiFi since 12 April 2017. Photo: Bloomberg

Trai's public WiFi model breaches Telegraph Act: COAI

Trai's proposal to sell internet services without a licence will be a complete bypass of present licensing framework and detrimental to massive investments already made in spectrum, telecom infrastructure, says COAI

New Delhi: An ambitious government plan to expand WiFi connectivity will breach the Telegraph Act, hurt massive investments made by big telecom firms and distort the level playing field, the country’s top telecom association said. The plan, recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), aims to create a light-touch licensing regime for the proposed ‘public data offices’ (PDO) to sell internet services.

In a letter addressed to the prime minister’s office, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said the Trai suggestions, which the government has accepted, seem to suggest a non-level playing field as these PDOs will not pay any licence fee or spectrum usage charges while licenced operators, i.e. the big telecom firms, continue to pay regulatory levies.

The letter comes at a time when the Department of Telecommunications is pressing ahead with its plan to boost internet connectivity, and is readying a 10,000-crore tender to float public WiFi hotspots. DoT aims to provide 1 gbps connectivity to all gram panchayats by 2020 and 10 gbps by 2022, apart from deploying 5 million public WiFi hotspots by 2020 and 10 million by 2022.

“...the proposal to sell internet services without a licence will be a complete bypass of present licencing framework, detrimental to massive investments already made in spectrum, telecom infrastructure and services," the letter dated 5 July said. Mint has seen a copy of the letter.

The Telecom Commission, the highest decision-making authority at DoT, on 1 May accepted Trai’s recommendations on setting up PDOs, which will sell small data packs starting at 2. DoT believes this will also create village-level entrepreneurship and employment opportunities through a new category of service providers—PDO aggregators (PDOA).

Trai had in March last year suggested PDOAs may be allowed to provide public WiFi services without any specific licence for the purpose but subject to specific registration requirements, prescribed by DoT, which will include obligations to ensure e-KYC, authentication and record-keeping requirements are fulfilled by the PDOAs.

COAI has also alleged that the recommendations are in violation of the Telegraph Act. Under the Act, telecom services can be provided by the central government or an entity authorised or licenced by the central government.

However, the DoT believes that a licence can be in any form and there is no violation of the Telegraph Act. “We are allowing registration (to act as a licence). For example, how you open a Google or Hotmail account. You click ‘I agree’ on the terms and conditions. So, similarly in this case, although you (PDO) are registering yourselves, you are accepting the licence conditions. So, you are registered, you are licenced to use that service," a senior official from the DoT said, requesting anonymity.

To boost public WiFi hotspots, the DoT also plans to issue a separate order allowing resale of internet data without double taxation, Mint had reported on 21 May.

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