The National Digital Communications Policy 2018 approved by the Union Cabinet does not have any fresh ideas in terms of addressing the issues being faced by the telecom sector. While restating the Centre’s intent to address the problems, it neither spells out how it plans to achieve the stated objectives nor gives a specific timeframe to implement the various proposals. Broadly, there are four major issues plaguing the telecom sector that need immediate attention. First, the industry is going through a financial crisis as a result of which as many as five operators have shut shop. Overall debt burden of the remaining players has burgeoned to alarming levels due to expensive spectrum auctions and huge reduction in cash flows. Second, telecom consumers are no better today than they were two decades ago when it comes to quality of services. Call drops, unwanted telemarketing calls, patchy data networks and unfair practices to get users pay more are rampant. To make matters worse, consumers do not have access to a reliable and neutral complaint redressal mechanism. Third, public sector companies in this sector continue to languish under high manpower costs and red tape. Fourth, there is a big worry over the huge imports of telecom equipment and devices at a time when India’s trade deficit is ballooning.
The new policy acknowledges these problems, but almost all the solutions offered find mention in earlier regulations and vision statements. Some of the major targets listed in the 2012 policy are still to be achieved. For example, the minimum broadband speeds are set at 512 kbps at present even though the 2012 policy had envisaged minimum broadband speeds of 2Mbps by 2015. The 2012 policy had also set a target of achieving 70 per cent rural tele-density by 2017. In reality, the rural tele-density is just under 60 per cent. Instead of delving into why these targets were missed and how things can be improved, the National Digital Communications Policy 2018 lists out more and new targets. Rather than re-stating old mission statements, the Centre should have focussed on putting together a road map, explaining how it will execute these initiatives. For instance, on the issue of reducing financial burden on the telecom operators, the policy merely restates that the plan is to rationalise government taxes and levies, apart from giving critical infrastructure status to the industry.
The reality is that these proposals have been pushed by the Department of Telecom for several years only to be blocked by the Finance Ministry, which has so far seen the sector only as a non-tax revenue generator for the exchequer. If the Centre wants to really prepare the country’s telecom sector for the upcoming digital revolution, it must go beyond giving mission statements to ensure that the vision translates into reality on the ground.