A robust Spectrum Act awaits installation of a new govt

Amidst slim chances of UPA II government returning to power at the Centre, there is an air of uneasiness in telecom industry as it feels that the Congress led government failed to implement many of its promises to address the crises besieging the sector.

 Despite the government claims that it had taken several measures to boost the sector, the failure is glaring on the management of radio waves, which is the core issue for telecom industry.

After the outcry over 2G scam, the UPA II was under pressure to take steps to prevent repeat of similar scandals and rebuild the investors’ confidence in the country. In an attempt to clear the ambiguity and adopt a transparent and competitive mechanism for allocation, pricing and utilisation of the natural resources, the government had in 2011 formed a high-level ‘committee on allocation of natural resources’ (CANR) headed by the then Union finance secretary Ashok Chawla.  

Along with a number of recommendations for allocation of various other natural resources, the panel also suggested measures to be adopted by the Department of Telecom in the management of spectrum. One of its major suggestions was to have comprehensive and integrated legislative framework for spectrum management to ensure optimal and efficient use of the country’s spectrum resources.

Taking cue from the Chawla committee suggestions, minister for communication and IT, Kapil Sibal, who succeeded A Raja, had announced the government’s plan to create a legislative framework for managing radio waves by formulating National Spectrum Act.

 Soon, the DoT constituted a panel for formulation of a ‘Spectrum Act’ headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Sivaraj V Patil, who had also probed the appropriateness of procedures followed by the DoT in the allocation of licences and spectrum between 2001 and 2009. However, Justice Patil declined the offer due to personal reasons.

Subsequently the government postponed the matter till the new National Telecom Policy-2012 was approved. Interestingly, though the new telecom policy was approved by the Union Cabinet in January 2012, it failed to address this issue, despite the assurance given by Sibal that all problems related to spectrum would be addressed in the new policy.

Three years passed since the Chawla committee submitted its report to the government, but the DoT did not move anything on drafting the bill or finding any other person for the task after Justice Patil refused to accept the assignment. The DoT informed the high level committee headed by cabinet secretary Ajit Kumar Seth, which is monitoring the implementation of the CANR recommendations, recently that “it will not pursue the issue further”.

The reasons behind the DOT decision to put framing of a potent 'Spectrum Act' on the back burner is not known, but sources in the telecom ministry says that the decision was taken on the advise of the minister Kapil Sibal.

Managing spectrum

The National Telecom Policy 2012, steered by Sibal, who was on the mission to boost the investors confidence in telecom sector, promises about ensuring sufficient availability of spectrum and its allocation in a transparent manner through market related processes. However, the effective Act is missing to ensure optimum use of this scarce natural resource and strict punishment to those misusing it.

When Sibal announced a separate law for managing spectrum, many in the telecom sector expected that the robust law would be a strong weapon for the government to manage spectrum as the DoT had already prepared a broad outline of the proposed legislation with several unique features including setting up of a Spectrum Management Commission of 10 members to follow fair, transparent, non-discriminatory market-based competitive assignment which may include methods such as tendering or bidding.

Though the proposal says that the Spectrum Management Commission shall be the sole body for dealing with all matters relating to spectrum notwithstanding the current provisions of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, a provision has been made in it that it can request TRAI for recommendations on spectrum-related issues from time to time.

There was a provision in proposed law for punishing severely those who possession of wireless equipment illegally or use radio spectrum without licence as well as for spectrum hoarding. 

Besides, the law was also supposed to allow spectrum sharing, trading, with certain conditions. While giving spectrum right under the provisions of this law via a radio spectrum licence to telecom service providers, it will have specific validity date. However the government will have the right to revoke, suspend, renew, and transfer the licence with certain conditions.

While telecom industry continues to pursue the government to have proper law to address issues haunting to the booming sector, the outgoing UPA II government has little time left to draft the new law and only the new government at the Centre will have to take a call on this matter.

Indeed UPA II had lost good three years in working on giving much needed powerful law to manage radio waves. And all this, after the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s report on the spectrum allocation in 2008 indicting the UPA I saying that the presumptive loss from the alleged scam could have been up to Rs1.76 lakh crore.

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