A less assertive Trai chief won’t help govt either
Before the government appoints a new Trai chief, it would do well to ask itself if the Trai process is working. And it will have to admit, it is not. This has nothing to do with Rahul Khullar’s combative personality and his willingness to tell the government where it is going wrong. The issue is a more deep-seated one. The Trai chief gave a recommendation on spectrum auctions, but the government chose to ignore it; and there were several others that fell in this category, and not just with this Trai chief. In the case of net neutrality and licensing of voice-OTTs like Skype, while Khullar did not get the time to give his recommendations—the consultation process ended just shortly before his tenure will—he has made his views on the matter clear, both through the consultation paper as well as through various media interviews. The government, similarly, has also made clear its views are quite the opposite, and that it is waiting for the Trai recommendations as a mere courtesy. A rubber-stamp successor to Khullar is always an option, more so given the BJP’s history with dissolving the Trai in 1999 when the then chief proved too independent—he had questioned the government’s authority to issue a cellular license to MTNL without consulting Trai—but the government would do well to keep in mind an independent Trai actually helps it more since, at the end of the day, the issue is more about getting the sector to grow while keeping consumer tariffs low by fostering competition.
If the government, for instance, intercedes aggressively on the issue of licensing voice-OTTs on the grounds that doing this would be anti net-neutrality, it will have to deal with the question of how India’s rollout of broadband is to be financed. It is, similarly, easier for the government if the Trai is to give directions to MTNL and BSNL to open up their networks to independent entities to give a fillip to landline broadband; MTNL and BSNL were none too pleased with the first Trai’s recommendations on mandatory interconnection, but this is what made private telecom take off. To take an example from the electricity sector, the government would never have found it possible to do what the CERC did —to hike tariffs for Tata and Adani Power when costs of their Indonesian coal spiralled. Indeed, the idea of independent regulatory structures emanated from the need to insulate decision-making from political vagaries—by ensuring the Trai’s powers are only recommendatory, the government is hurting itself since all the tough decisions will have to be taken by it.
A decision will have to be taken soon, a point that Khullar has made in his exit interview to this newspaper, on the spectrum auction method since telcos cannot afford to keep paying astronomical entry fees. Similarly, whoever Khullar’s successor is will have to reiterate the importance of lowering regulatory charges like license/spectrum fees if the sector is to survive. In this context, it will help if Trai came out with actual data on voice/data subscribers, since it is only when the actual picture is known that the right policies can even be looked for—based on Trai data, 970 million Indians have mobile phones while the reality is quite different. Beefing up Trai’s strength, similarly, is critical if it is to be able to deal with detecting/monitoring the sector on vital net neutrality principles like throttling and fast-lanes. If the government is at all serious about Digital India, it needs to seriously revisit these issues and genuinely empower Trai.