Under the dynamic leadership of R S Sharma, TRAI has been making regulatory interventions over the years to set the basic regulatory framework in the telecom, broadcast and digital in place. In an exclusive interview with exchange4media, Sharma speaks about regulatory policies, the changing role of regulatory bodies and how TRAI is facilitating and shaping the Digital India dream.
TRAI has recently released new draft orders around tariff arrangements, interconnection arrangements and Quality of Service, what prompted the need to regulate these areas?
Broadcasting sector came under ambit of TRAI in 2004 when the industry was predominantly analog. Since then a lot of changes have occurred on the technology front as well as in the way the channels are delivered and consumed. Today the broadcasting sector is one of the fastest growing sectors. It has around 101 million cable TV households now in contrast to about 71 Million in 2006. The DTH sector has also grown to over 60 million active subscribers. There are more than 890 registered satellite TV channels today as compared to 37 channels in 2006.
Another change has taken place over the years is that the industry has moved from analog to digital domain and this process is expected to be completed with Phase-IV digitization of the cable TV sector by December 2016.
The consumers however do not appear to have benefitted fully from these developments. They have little choice and control over selection of channels as per their preferences, even though a large number of channels are pushed to them. As far as other stakeholders are concerned, the current business models appear to be heavily influenced by the legacy practices of the analog regime. The eco-system today gives more importance to stakeholders in the value chain rather than to the consumers who are treated as merely “eyeballs”. This has created skewed markets which affect quality of service and healthy growth of the sector.
TRAI has been making regulatory interventions over the years to correct the aberrations. The existing regulatory framework has however evolved from an analog regime where there was less transparency in terms of number of subscribers, and revenue transactions along the value chain. In digital regime many of the issues and practices of analog era are no more relevant. In view of all these factors, the Authority considered it fit to review the existing regulatory framework for TV broadcasting services in a comprehensive manner with an objective to create an enabling environment for orderly growth of the television broadcasting sector in the light of various developments related to technology, emergence of different distribution platforms, evolving business models and enhanced addressability across the platforms.
We have focused on ensuring transparency and providing consumer with adequate choice, affordable tariff and good quality of service while providing a level playing field and fair competition among the service providers which is expected to minimize disputes. The new regulatory framework also encourages use of ICTs which will ease out operational costs and help create consumer friendly environment to provide better quality of service. We expect that the new framework will create a win-win situation for overall growth of the sector and for all the stakeholders.
You have been holding regional consultations to understand the problems faced by cable operators for the last few months. Are there any problem/issues which you have tried to address in these sets of regulations?
Unlike telecom sector, in broadcasting sector, the number of LCOs and MSOs is very large and most of them cater to small subscriber base in small cities/towns and villages. They are one of the important stakeholders in the value chain as they provide last mile service to the consumers. It was felt that their problems and issues can be better appreciated if they are provided an easy access to interact with the authority. It was therefore decided to reach out to these stakeholders, close to their area of operation, to understand their problems. Till now as many as 13 interactions have been held with these cable operators in various parts of the country.
These interactions have been very useful and have been welcomed by the stakeholders. Some of the issues that came to the notice of the Authority, were relating to non signing of interconnection agreement between MSOs and LCOs; arbitrary disconnection of signals of TV channels; arbitrary removal of TV channels from the subscription package of the subscriber and non compliance of the provisions of regulations relating to issue of bills and payment receipts to the subscribers. The primary reasons for these issues are non-transparency and non clarity on the mutual roles and responsibilities of MSO and LCO leading to the poor quality of service to the consumers.
The proposed regulatory framework has considered such issues and the drafts regulations/ tariff orders have necessary provisions to safeguards the interests of the small operators. TRAI is also looking at the possibility of enabling the use of cable TV infrastructure for improving last mile broadband connectivity which may be an additional revenue stream for the sector.
TRAI had appointed experts to look into Set Top Box interoperability also. What kind of changes can be expected in the coming time?
STB interoperability is one of the concerns for TRAI. Today, the STB cannot be used interchangeably across different service providers. The non- interoperability of STBs between different service providers has not only compromised competition in the TV market but also a major hindrance to technological innovation and improvement in service quality.
TRAI has been examining this issue and has held consultation with the stakeholders. This appears to be a complex issue as regulators world over are confronted with this challenge. Based on the issues identified in the discussion with the industry, TRAI has requested IIT Bombay to study the issue and suggest a suitable framework for interoperability. It is a matter of concern that not much innovation has taken place in the STB and it continues to remain as a “dumb box”. It is in the interests of stakeholders that they also take lead to introduce interoperability and open STB architecture so that more innovation can take place and STB becomes a ‘Smart Box” enabling new viewing experience to the consumers. The platform operators sometimes claim that they are compelled to give huge subsidy to the consumers for providing STBs due to market conditions. If open STB is available in the market it will also reduce the burden of subsidy to a great extent.
When it comes to broadband penetration, India is at the 131stposition in the UN ranking, way behind countries like Sri Lanka, doesn’t digital India appear like a far-fetched dream?
At present, India is 2nd largest country in terms of Internet Users. Internet Users are growing at a reasonably fast pace in the country. We have achieved 50% annual growth rate in the broadband subscription in the year 2015-16. Further, with the expansion of 4G networks, allocation of more spectrum to the service providers in the recent auction, Internet penetration is expected to grow at a much faster pace. We are also evaluating possibility of proliferation of broadband through Public Wi-Fi Networks in the country. For the BharatNet project, which aims at connecting rural India through OFC, we have recommended a BOOT/BOT model implementation strategy. The matter is under consideration with the government. In addition, the authority is also exploring the possibility of using cable TV networks for providing broadband to the homes. The authority has also written to DoT to remove the burden of license fee in case a cable TV operator provides broadband through its network. With around 100 million homes having cable TV and the process of digitalisation to be completed by 31st December 2016, the authority is confident that this can be one of the fastest way to take broadband to the consumers premises.
TRAI has also been working on free data recommendation; how soon can we expect a decision on it?
In order to address the issue of providing free internet access to consumers and to explore a possibility of ‘TSP agnostic platform’, which can facilitate app developers to promote their website without entering into agreement with TSPs for making their website popular, the authority has issued a Consultation Paper in May, 2016 to explore models that could achieve the benefits of offering free data while avoiding the ingenuity that the Differential Tariff Regulation is meant to prevent. Comments and counter comments have been received from stakeholders and an Open House Discussion was conducted at Hyderabad. TRAI will soon come out with its directions/recommendations on the issue.
There have been disagreements regarding the interconnectivity of networks especially between Jio and other networks, how does TRAI plan to address it?
The authority is cognizant about the disputes raised by Reliance Jio and other service providers with regard to interconnectivity, asymmetry of traffic, free offer etc. The authority’s stand on this issue is clear: customers should, in no case, suffer because of the disagreements between these companies. This has also been made amply clear to the service providers. TRAI has issued show cause notices and directions to the concerned TSPs. After giving ample time and opportunity, TRAI has also sent its recommendations to the Government for imposing penalty on Bharti, Idea and Vodafone of Rs. 50 crore in each service area where POI congestion exceeded the benchmark of 0.5%.
You have on many occasions said that TRAI would prefer to take the route of technology tools and awareness, rather than regulations to overcome the problem, can you elaborate on it?
TRAI has recently taken some major steps using technology to gather information on quality of service, to create awareness about the quality and to facilitate consumers in addressing the problems of Unsolicited Commercial Communications (UCC). The TRAI analytics portal www.analytics.trai.gov.in, launched recently, has three sub-portals viz. TRAI QoS Analytics Portal, TRAI MySpeed Portal and TRAI Drive Test Portal. The TRAI QoS Analytics portal provides a graphical view on the map of India the performance of the 2G service providers on call drop (on all India level, service area level, district level and Base Transceiver Station(BTS) level), BTS density per square kilometer and network utilisation so that the consumers can have informed choice based on quality of service. The portal allows a user to check the call drop rate of all the 2G networks or of any particular telecom operator on an all India level, at a service area level, district level and BTS level. The all India view shows the average call drop rate for the entire country. The users can also view the comparative performance of service providers or service provider wise performance. Users can also navigate and view the performance of all the operators or of a particular operator for a service area or a district in a service area and even up to BTS level. Thus the portal facilitates information about call drop in a particular area covered by a BTS. The portal also provides a search facility so that the user can search a location anywhere in the country and can get information about the BTS’s within 4 kms of the location.
The TRAI - “MySpeed” Portal allows the users to explore the mobile data experience of consumers across India. The “Myspeed” App, which could be downloaded from the mobile sewa app store, allows users to measure their data speed experience and send the results to this portal. The application also sends coverage, data speed and network information along with device and location of the test to TRAI servers. The customers can view the data experience of all TSPs from the TRAI MySpeed Portal.
In the TRAI Drive Test Portal the users can view the city-wise drive test reports on Call Drop, Coverage and Voice quality of mobile networks conducted by TRAI.
TRAI had launched a DND services app on 1.6.2016. This app helps smart phone users to register their mobile number under DND to avoid Unsolicited Commercial Communication (UCC)/Telemarketing calls/SMS. After registration if telecom subscriber still receives any UCC via SMS or call, then this app will facilitate users to register complaint with their respective Telecom Service Provider (TSP). The interface of the app is very user friendly and does not require much of the user intervention. Users can also check their Registration Status and Status of Complaints (Call/SMS).
Finally, why is it that regulation in India is seen more as policing than facilitating how would you explain this perception?
TRAI has always tried to facilitate a healthy and constructive environment in the telecom sector. All regulations and recommendations are framed in a transparent manner after in-depth discussions with stakeholders through a well-defined consultation process. Ensuring consumer satisfaction is a big priority on our agenda.