India’s New Telecom Law Sets Stage For Starlink Amid Privacy Concerns


India’s parliament has passed a telecommunications bill that replaces its century-old rules as the country, with over 1.17 billion telephone connections and 881 million internet subscribers, aims to modernize connectivity and embrace new services including satellite broadband, just months before general elections. On Thursday, the upper house of the Indian parliament approved the Telecommunications Bill, 2023, through voice votes, just a day after the bill was cleared in the lower house, with many opposition leaders absent due to their suspension. The bill, which abolished the rules made in the telegraph era from as early as 1885, grants the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government the power to use and take control of telecom services and networks and monitor traffic data in national security interest. It also retains the ground for the Indian government to intercept communication.

Key Takeaway

India’s new telecommunications bill paves the way for satellite broadband services and introduces regulatory changes, but it also raises concerns about privacy and surveillance, prompting advocacy groups to call for its withdrawal and the creation of a new draft through consultation.

New Opportunities for Satellite Broadband Services

The newly passed telecom bill also allows spectrum allocation for satellite-based services without participating in auctions, a move to favor companies including OneWeb, Starlink, and Amazon’s Kuiper that are all keen to start their satellite broadband services in the world’s most populous country and have long-demanded “administrative process” over auctions for spectrum allocation. India’s Jio, looking to take on the three global players with its native satellite broadband service but with relatively limited resources, earlier opposed the model of spectrum allocation administratively.

Regulatory Changes and Concerns

The bill also mandates biometric verification for subscribers and restricts the number of SIM cards each subscriber uses to limit fraud. Additionally, it includes the provisions of civil penalties of up to $12,000 in the case of infringing specific provisions and up to $600,400 for breaching the terms and conditions defined in the law. As the Indian government intends to attract foreign investors by expanding private participation, the bill carries amendments to the telecommunication regulator-aimed Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997. These amendments allow executives with over 30 years of private sector experience to be appointed as regulator’s chairperson, while those with over 25 years can be its members. The country previously only allowed retired government employees to serve as chairpersons and members of the regulator.

Privacy Concerns and Advocacy

Interestingly, the telecom bill excludes the term “OTT,” available in its initial draft last year, indicating regulations for over-the-top (OTT) messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram. Industry bodies including the Internet and Mobile Association of India, which counts Google and Meta among its members, have praised the change. However, the scope of the regulation has not been clearly defined throughout the document. Digital rights activists and privacy advocacy groups have also raised concerns over the ambiguity related to the regulation and absence of public consultations for the bill’s final version.

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