There is no slump in telecom demand, says Trai chairman R S Sharma

R S Sharma, Chairman, Trai
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) Chairman R S Sharma has in the recent months provided recommendations on contentious issues such as net neutrality and call termination rates. In an interaction with Kiran Rathee, Sharma discussed Trai’s priorities for 2018, the future of the telecom sector, alleged Aadhaar data breach and more. Edited excerpts:

What are your priorities for the telecom sector this year?

We have had a meeting with the telecom service providers on January 23 and we have now an agreed list of the things which we will deliberate this year. The issues for consultation in 2018 include provision of infrastructure related issues in telecom, consultation paper on over-the-top (OTT) services, review of the licensing framework, and national telecom numbering plan among others. This is going to be our list of things to do. However, that does not exclude many other issues that are in the pipeline or are going to come up. 

Everything except the principles of tariff has been cleared. Regulatory principles of tariff and assessment are going to come out very shortly, possibly by next week.

Trai has already given its recommendations on net neutrality but a separate set of proposals will be out for OTT players. Do you agree that may violate net neutrality as some activists suggest?

It is not a question of regulating or not regulating the OTT. The issue is that we had issued a consultation paper on OTT in April 2015 and that consultation could not result in any kind of conclusion. Thereafter, in February 2016 we issued a regulation on discriminatory tariff. Then, the government asked us for comprehensive recommendations on net neutrality. We have given the recommendations to the government. Now the question is what are the residual issues left of that OTT paper that are still unresolved. We have decided that we will issue a consultation paper on the residual issues and that has OTT. So some of the issues of OTT which have not been addressed, like the regulatory imbalance between OTT and service providers, will be taken up. 

Trai has implemented the new quality of service rules and operators are required to submit data according to the new rules. When can we expect the report to be out?

The date for submission by operators was January 21. We have prescribed the quality of service rules that do not depend on averages. It is big data analytics. All the operators except Reliance Communications have submitted their reports. We will be able to publish the performance results of the operators soon. If any benchmark is missing in the quality of service, we will rectify that. We will act according to the law if any operator is not meeting the benchmarks.

As a regulator, do you think the sector has now stabilised?

I avoid giving my comments on the issue. But I see a great future for the telecom sector. An important growth parameter for any sector is demand for its products. What is the product that the telecom sector is producing? It is data and there is huge data demand. The more you produce, the more you get consumed, so there is no slump in the industry, as such. That is a great indicator for the future of the telecom sector. Telecom infrastructure is becoming central to the growth story of our country. It is true for almost all sectors of the economy.

International termination rates have been reduced, but operators argue it may not benefit consumers. So why did Trai reduce the rates?

We have given very clear reasons for the reduction in rates in our recommendations. It is to curb grey market...we are also concerned about the security of the systems. We have given a very clear logic as to why the rates should be pegged at this value (30 paise per minute). Anything more than this value will create a grey market. 

Recently, reports emerged about the Aadhaar data breach. As the former UIDAI director general, what are your comments?

I have very clearly said that there was no data breach and I maintain that. e-Aadhaar or downloading your own Aadhaar is a facility that was in place for the past four to five years. We created this facility because many people had not received their hard copy of Aadhaar. The recent case about Aadhaar is breach of trust and not data breach. It is a criminal activity, which should not have been done.

Trai is undertaking the consultation process for the next round of spectrum auction. When are the recommendations expected, and do you think there is appetite?

We are framing our recommendations, which will be delivered in some time. In the recommendations, we have to see timings of auction, reserve price, what to auction, when to auction. 

Trai is also undertaking a consultation process on data protection. What is its status?

We have written to the Justice Srikrishna Committee that we had started this consultation process long before the committee was formed by the government. So whatever recommendations we will give to the government, we will also give to the committee as inputs. Any law that is made as a result of the Srikrishna Committee recommendations will be applicable to everybody, including the telecom sector. 

Are you happy with your work as the telecom regulator?

I have always been happy doing my job, whatever that job has been. I will complete 40 years of government service on March 6. During my tenure, I have enjoyed working in the developmental sector. It is always been development and technology.