Almost all the proposals in the draft National Digital Communications Policy 2018 policy have found mention in earlier regulations and vision statements of the telecom regulator or the Department of Telecom. For example, making broadband access available to every citizen. This was already the stated objective of the Centre when the National Telecom Policy was rolled out in 2012. Six years later, broadband access for all is still a distant dream; even basic 2G network is yet to reach all parts of the country. There are also some proposals whose time is already over as the one about restructuring C-DOT as a premier telecom research and development centre. This was the intent with which C-DOT was set up in 1984 but it is now well documented how India lost the game in getting a seat on the technology high table with the development of 2G, 3G and 4G platforms. Similarly, there is mention of finding synergies between telecom public sector undertakings. This exercise was first started in 2002 but nothing has come of it till date. It is unfortunate that the Centre is still flagging these as part of its new mission statement supposedly aimed at enabling India to move into a highly digitised world.
Instead, the Ministry should have focussed on putting together a roadmap explaining how it will execute these initiatives. For instance, the new policy states that incentivising manufacturing of semiconductor chips is one of the top priority areas. The Centre has already rolled out a policy in this regard which has failed to attract any player so far due to a number of reasons. The new policy should have gone into these reasons and proposed a plan to fix the shortcomings.
The telecom industry is in the middle of a massive crisis. On the one hand operators are under a massive financial strain, with declining profits and growing debt while on the other there is tremendous pressure on them to invest more into building networks to satiate the growing demand for data services. The 2018 policy very emphatically states that it envisions investments of $100 billion in the digital communications sector but the reality is that none of the existing players is in a position to put that money on the table. Rather than offering a clear roadmap of how it plans to provide fiscal relief to the industry , the policy merely restates that the plan is to rationalise government taxes and levies for the sector in addition to giving critical infrastructure status to the industry. These proposals have been blocked by the Finance Ministry for many years as it has so far seen the telecom sector only as non-tax revenue generator for the exchequer. The telecom ministry should take a fresh approach while finalising the National Digital Communications Policy 2018 if it wants this to be more than just a paper policy.
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