Telecommunications and broadcasting regulatory authorities may be merged; telephone networks may become broadcasters, but not vice versa
As long as broadcasting and communications remained heavily regulated, the issue of media convergence was irrelevant, for all media converged in the government. Now that both are being thrown open to private (and limited foreign) investment, ignoring the implications of multimedia and cable telephony is at worst catastrophic for Indian industry, at best a hindrance. Thankfully, the government is quite aware of this - it has to be, after all, since the same legislation has governed both broadcasting and communications for a century.
Aware, but still unclear on how to proceed. One radical solution would be to merge the Ministry of Communications with that of Information and Broadcasting (I&B). An informal plan to this effect is floating around, having been proposed by a group of parliamentarians and former broadcasting ministers crossing party lines, none of whom were willing to go on record. This is very unlikely to come to much, for it would mean not only having to deal with redundant bureaucrats, but also the elimination of ministerial posts. In a time of likely coalition politics these are valuable currency, and ministries tend to increase rather than merge.
However, both Department of Telecommunications (DoT) Secretary R K Takkar as well as I&B Secretary Bhaskar Ghose, who are not authorised to comment on the mergers of ministries, are cooperating closely. Especially in matters concerning regulatory bodies (see Regulating the regulators) and the long overdue revision of the 1885 Indian Telegraph Act, there are many conflicting and common interests between the two. Says Mr Ghose, "whatever [the DoT] do [about the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, TRAI] they consult us and whatever we do [with Indian Broadcasting Authority, IBA] we will be consulting them at every stage."
That has not changed the cumbersome process any prospective private service provider will have to go through. A terrestrial TV or radio channel will first get the permission (perhaps after paying for a licence) from the IBA, which will in turn recommend that it be granted a broadcast frequency. Then the TRAI will see that the broadcaster's technical plans are up to the mark, and will recommend that the frequencies be allocated by the DoT-linked wireless advisor, originally to be merged with the TRAI but now, according to Mr Ghose, "reserved by the DoT [for itself] for reasons I don't understand" - probably because it also allocates frequencies to the defence services.
The process for a cable-TV operator is slightly simpler, as it requires no air space. But will an existing or prospective service provider be able to offer telephony services? Hypothetically, it would ask the TRAI. In fact, "we will not allow it," says Mr Takkar, which makes one wonder at the strange exception to the TRAI's otherwise independent functioning. The reason is not hard to find - after making sizeable bids (with a 15% weightage given to rural coverage) to provide basic services nationwide, telephone companies wouldn't care for unexpected interlopers from the cable world. On the other hand, says Mr Takkar, "we have planned that [convergence] be initiated by telephone operators." The tender documents for basic services even allowed for the development of infrastructure for video-on-demand and similar technologies, although actual operation of such services will require additional permission - from the IBA. "So far we've had no takers," says Mr Ghose, who has received only "about four" enquiries for cable telephony and interactive multimedia networks (see related bulletin).
The government is working on the eventual merger of the TRAI and the IBA. While Mr Ghose thinks it may be impractical, he believes that "ideally it should happen." Mr Takkar agrees; in fact, he says, if it was not for the industry pressure on the DoT to form the TRAI quickly, it would have been joined to the IBA to begin with.
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