Cry, My Beloved Country

The country was not prepared for the fairly surprising judgment of TRAI in sending the ISP
policy back to DoT, and that too with barely 24 hours to go for the sale of forms. The
dismay is at two levels. First, TRAI’s decision to send back the ISP policy per se; and
second, to link the issue of MTNL’s cellular services with the overall ISP policy issues.

One, the decision to invalidate the policy.
If anything, the timing could not have been worse. With the country already undergoing its
second General Elections in 18 months, the foreign investors are already nervous about the
prospects of putting their money into what they call a ‘credit-suspect’ economy, as
reflected by Moody’s statement to downgrade India’s credit rating. If there was a silver
lining, it was the ISP policy. By invalidating the same, the honorable members of the
TRAI, might just have put another bump in the track of Indian reforms. By doing so, when a
good number of corporates were getting ready to invest, and that too on the last evening
before the sale of forms, the TRAI might have won the battle for the limelight. If the
reasons given by the TRAI are valid, as no doubt they might well be, then why did the
honorable members of TRAI have to wait for the last working day to announce their
decision? Surely, the calendar of TRAI, unlike the courts’, is not so full.

By linking the MTNL cellular entry issue
with the policy TRAI has unnecessarily complicated the issue. MTNL could still have been
barred from entry into cellular services based on DoT’s own proviso that each city will
have only two service providers, a clause which was present in original tender documents.
DoT could then have been prevented from putting its other invisible arm into the game
through MTNL. This would have been much more straightforward and would have allowed the
ISP policy to still stand. As to why a DoT-TRAI spat should hurt the rest of the country
is not conceivable. We are told that the current email operators are happy by TRAI’s
decision. Once again, including the email operators was an amendment to the ISP policy and
did not warrant invalidation of the whole policy. Many in the industry fear that the
DoT-TRAI spat will now escalate and will end up hurting the pace of telecom in the

And that is our main worry. While we still
applaud TRAI and its role, by escalating the row, TRAI has taken upon itself the job of
bringing the till-now-unquestioned DoT under a leash. However, in the process, TRAI has
also taken upon itself the responsibility of ensuring that the telecom reforms, which got
a much-needed fillip due to TRAI’s setting up, do not slacken. Every war has its
casualties, but in this war, let not the casualty be Indian Telecom.

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