Monday, December 29, 2008

New Year Wish for the Indian Telecom Sector

One thing that the telecom industry seeks in 2009 is the establishment of a predictable regulatory and policy environment. The Indian telecom sector has grown at breakneck speed in the last ten years since New Telecom Policy 99; we have achieved much more in the first decade of deregulation in the telecom sector than any other country has. The overall policy framework has supported entry of several new operators, a dramatic reduction of tariffs and consequently, an exponential growth in subscribers.

However, this rapid growth has also been accompanied by frequent changes in policies and regulations related to the conditions of entry of new players and operations of existing service providers. And in a number of cases, these changes have been preceded by or led to controversies and often, legal battles. Not only have they created confusion amongst operators and investors, but also failed to address the problems.

One of the oldest surviving issues is that of customer choice for long distance calling. In spite of a 2002 Telecom Regulation Authority of India (TRAI) directive to all operators to implement carrier access code within 3 to 18 months, customers are still awaiting this choice. And strangely enough, the TRAI dropped this Directive recently citing non-implementation as the reason! Those operators who invested in long distance licenses on the assumption of direct access to customers have had to since the reset of their business plans.

Similarly, about two years ago, the TRAI recommended the introduction of resellers in the International Private Leased Circuits segment; this licensing change was brought about purportedly to bring international bandwidth prices down significantly. Yet, not a single reseller has been licensed to date! Perhaps, there was no real or urgent need for the introduction of resellers, or customers have been deprived of more choice and lower prices.

Global benchmarks and experience suggest three major changes that can help create a more robust and predictable regulatory environment. Firstly, in order to truly implement the underlying purpose of bringing TRAI into existence, DoT must be mandated to accept and implement TRAI recommendations in totality and immediately. Worldwide, the policy and regulatory functions rest with one agency, thus leading to certainty of policy direction. There is no reason why only a handful of TRAI’s nearly 30 “recommendations” in 2008 should get accepted. 

Secondly, TRAI must be given powers to penalise errant operators. There have been several instances of non-implementation of Trai orders but the regulator has been unable to do much about this. Finally, TRAI should be staffed with professionals with technical, economic and regulatory skills, including those with international experience and private sector participation. Today, TRAI attracts only government officials on deputations or after retirement. Not only are they often conflicted, but also lack the appropriate capabilities to develop forward looking policies, proactively anticipating technology and market trends.

Investors, both international and Indian, have pumped in tens of billions of dollars into the vibrant telecom sector in the last few years. Gains due to exponential market growth have managed to compensate for the disadvantages of an uncertain regulatory environment. Over the next couple of years, in an uncertain economic condition and with relatively slower growth, predictability of the regulatory environment will be necessary to attract further investments.

(This article appeared in the Financial Express on 28 Dec, 2009.)

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