The NDA had drafted a Convergence Bill in 2000-2001 but dropped it later owing to differences between the involved bodies. This Bill lapsed after the Lok Sabha was dissolved in 2004.The UPA did not pursue the bill in the last decade, keeping it only as a show piece on its official website.
Currently, the Department of Telecommunications is working on the idea of establishing a single regulatory framework for multi-faceted communications, IT and multimedia. The Communications Commission working on the lines of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US, will have seven members and will stimulate market competition in order to ensure better quality services for the consumer and prevent monopolies. Each member would be a domain expert on areas such as telecom, broadcasting, information technology, law and consumer affairs and finance.
The new appellate body called the Communications Appellate Tribunal may have 3 members and a Chairman. This tribunal will also have the power to oversee dispute resolution.
The Bill also seeks to replace all old and redundant legislations which include the Telegraph Act of 1885, as well as Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act 1933, Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act 1995, IT Act 2000 etc.
So the Indian government has once again laid its 'merciful' eyes on the Communication Convergence Bill. Way back in 2000, the Group of Ministers dealing with the Bill cleared it on July 19, for tabling in the Parliament during the monsoon session. The revised Convergence Bill drafted by the Fali Nariman Committee incorporated suggestions received from various quarters.
The much-delayed Bill has undergone many changes in the past. It began life as the Broadcast Bill. It was then turned into the Communication Bill and then it became the CC Bill (though there were also suggestion it be called the Information, Communication and Entertainment or ICE Bill).
The necessity of the proposed Bill rose on the account of the increasing realisation that with the rapid advancement in the areas of broadcasting telecommunications and Information Technology which were increasingly converging as a result of which their interplay could only be regulated by a multisector regulator under the aegis of an umbrella legislation.
All governments who have so far attempted to regulate the Broadcasting sector have failed miserably. This is because one way or the other, they had their vested interests in mind, thereby sidelining the interest of the industry that was converging very fast. The I&B Ministry had its eyes only on the content industry whereas the Telecom Ministry only wanted to look after the interests of the telecom players. This resulted in neglect of the Cable TV infrastructure that remained in shambles even after the massive exercise of mandatory digitization.
Now when the Convergence Bill is there in the offing, hopes have been raised once again and new directions are being foresighted regarding the Cable TV Industry. Though enormous debates have been generated regarding the Bill, it carries with itself certain critical areas of concern that demand immediate address.
A look at the Draft Convergence Bill of 2000
To advance the spirit of the modern concept of "self-regulation" in the industry, the Bill proposes the establishment of the omnibus Communications Commission of India (CCI)) with absolute powers to formulate regulations and guidelines for the converging sectors. The Commission has also been empowered to grant licenses to service providers, and to lay down conditions for the grant of these licenses with a view to promote competition and prescribing cross-media restrictions to prevent market dominance by a few.
While the previous functions of the CCI pertain to its role as a regulator, the Bill also confers on it certain quasi-judicial functions whereby it may be called upon to adjudicate disputes amongst the service providers and also those arising between service providers and consumers. It also contemplates the setting up of a Communications Appellate Tribunal (CAT) to hear appeals. The Bill also empowers the CCI to licence the possession of "wireless equipment." The definition of "wireless equipment" if interpreted according to the clause 2 (38) of the Bill is so diversified that, if adopted, a large number of electronic equipments of daily use, like mobile phones, pagers, computers and peripherals with infra-red devices would acquire compulsory registration and licensing.
The other important sector of the Convergence Commission will be the spectrum managers office. The Cabinet secretariat will deal with that sector. Mrs. Sushma Swaraj's last-minute effort to delink content from the Bill, were however not accepted. The content deals with broadcasting issues and carriage with telecom issues. Dreadingly for I&B officials, it could mean taking away Doordarshan and Prasar Bharati from I&B ministry and telecom department from the communications ministry." Content and Carriage and the spectrum manager's office- these will be the two bureaus with the Commission. The spectrum manager will distribute the frequencies to to different channels.
Though huge speculations are being made because of the Communication Convergence Bill but the real picture is not as rosy as it seems. As is evident, the Communication Convergence Bill has from long, been treated in a step-motherly manner by the India government. First the proposition of the Bill itself took valuable years and now when it is in the offing, the real shape of the Bill is amorphic and so- unclear.
The Grey areas to be covered
There are certain important things which have been neglected in the last draft which is expected to be taken care of by the present committee constituted by the Department of Telecommunications to develop its conceptual framework:-
- A regulation should be there to see how to lay a proper Cable TV infrastructure, which is not there at present. For e.g., the respective state electricity boards demand huge amounts of money as 'revenues' for allowing the carriage of cable wires on the electricity poles. There are no norms followed in doing so and from the arbitrary rates charged. It appears that their only aim is to fleece the operators and also to increase the corruption.
- There should be a definite basic subscriber price for various zones ie. metros, urban, rural etc. for the minimum services rendered. This could be based on a minimum number of channels. The present solution of TRAI that fixes one tariff for all is not working.
- Proper guidelines should be laid-down for the taxation process, for the states. Cable TV is being viewed as a cinema like entertainment and not as a mass information media. States should understand that it is the subscribers who are being taxed and not the operators. Fixing rates like Rs 50/- per subscriber is ridiculous.
- Austere regulations should be made to curb the piracy and thefts of signals from the cable lines.
- Regulation should be there for the franchise system developed by MSOs to integrate small networks with the larger ones and then to the national level networks of the future if we wish to see convergence in the real sense.
- Most importantly, the Cable TV industry should be recognised as an infrastructure industry like telecom industry so that the facilities and 'perks' which are enjoyed by the latter can also be utilised by the Cable TV industry.