India: Telecom Bill and the New Era of Digital Colonialism

In December 2023, India took a significant step towards reshaping its telecom landscape by introducing a new telecom law. ARTICLE 19 joins the international community for digital rights in travel worries about the bill’s threats to privacy and the power it gives central government to enforce decisions that could directly harm citizens’ right to free speech. The legislation, while aiming to bridge connectivity gaps and modernize the telecommunications sector, risks inadvertently entrenching corporate and government control, potentially at the expense of digital democracy and local innovation.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the telecommunications bill is its provision for government-mandated internet shutdowns. This power, ostensibly for security, masks a strong threat to the fundamental rights of privacy and freedom of expression. By giving the government such sweeping authority, the bill risks institutionalizing digital authoritarianism, where connectivity is a privilege doled out at the whim of the state, rather than an inalienable right-giver that enables not only freedom of expression but also access to education, health and humanitarian aid .

Much less attention has been paid to the misguided way in which the bill attempts to address India’s digital divide. The Indian government has positioned it as a catalytic agent for India’s digital infrastructure. But beneath the surface of the bill’s seemingly progressive provisions lies a web of implications that merit critical examination, particularly from the perspective of facilitating or hindering meaningful connection to the Internet.

The Present and the Promise: India’s Telecom Terrain

India stands as a leader in the mobile internet domain, trailing only China in terms of largest number of internet users globally. This huge user base mainly accesses the Internet via mobile networks: the latest ITU data (2022) shows that 56 per 100 inhabitants have a mobile broadband subscription, against only 2 per 100 who connect to the Internet via a fixed broadband subscription. Giants like Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel dominate this sphere with more than 90% market share, with Jio’s aggressive pricing strategies in the past improving market dynamics.

But below the surface, there is still a significant digital divide, especially between urban and rural areas as well as between different socio-economic groups. Although the cost of connection in India is considered low, it does not mean fast and reliable connection. Access just one more GB of data involves an investment of 1 to 2 USD per day. The lack of adequate ‘backhaul’ (the part of a communications network that connects local area networks to the main Internet infrastructure) limits widespread access to the service. In other words, because the core network is not strong enough, it is difficult to provide reliable Internet to all the smaller, local networks. This impairs the overall availability and reach of the service, particularly in locations where demand does not translate into profits, predominantly outside the urban areas. Problems with quality of serviceincluding inconsistent internet speeds and frequent outages, are also widespread. This affects the overall user experience and can hinder the adoption of digital services in more remote areas of the country.

The hidden costs of satellite supremacy

One of the most debated changes in the bill involves allowing satellite service providers to access the frequencies through an administrative process rather than the traditional and often very expensive spectrum auction. This move has been praised by a significant section of media for its potential to promote competition and expand internet coverage, seen as a solution for remote and rural areas where traditional fiber deployment is impractical and economically unfeasible.

ARTICLE 19 warns against too much optimism about satellite internet. With the market dominated by players from the Global North, heralding satellite internet as the panacea for all connectivity problems risks maintaining that dominance, potentially at the cost of stifling local innovation and technological autonomy.

The entry of satellite services into the Indian market, mainly led by US giants like Starlink and Kuiper, raises concerns that digital colonialism. It can further distort the digital infrastructure and inhibit the growth of grassroots telecommunications infrastructures. While we may see more diversity in service technologies in terms of connectivity, users will still be treated as mere consumers, and the Internet as merely a service. This is a very narrow understanding of the potential of the internet, which should instead be seen as a key enabler of human rights, allowing people to express themselves freely, communicate with others or access education or health care.

Privileging commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs), satellite or not, can also have negative consequences for community-developed content. ISPs can enter into partnerships or agreements with content providers through which they can prioritize the delivery of content from partners over that of their competitors. In some cases, ISPs also offer their own content that they deliver through their networks, further disadvantaging independent content producers.

Community networks: a missed opportunity for radical transformation

Community networks provide a vibrant counterpoint to conventional telecommunication models, particularly in India’s underserved locales. From solar powered internet carts in Little Rann of Kutch to collaborations with local radio stationsthese initiatives exemplify the power of localized, innovative approaches to democratize Internet access, including development of digital skills.

Community-driven networks can be particularly transformative in underserved or rural areas where commercial providers may not see a profitable market. These networks allow communities to build, operate and maintain their own Internet services and promote local content and services tailored to specific needs and cultures.

The best way to ensure that community networks can thrive is by maintaining access to unlicensed spectrum. Unlicensed spectrum offers lower barriers to entry as it can be used by anyone without the need for expensive licenses or compliance with strict regulations. Unlicensed networks can also provide additional resiliency and redundancy in the communications infrastructure. In disaster scenarios, for example, community networks can maintain communications even when traditional networks fail, ensuring continuity of service.

Unlicensed spectrum can serve as a platform for free speech and information dissemination, crucial in regions with a great diversity of cultures and traditions, such as India. It supports a diversity of voices and viewpoints, contributing to a more equitable and participatory digital landscape.

The Universal Service Obligation Fund, now called Digital Bharat Nidhi, includes in its obligations to support universal service by promoting access to and provision of telecommunications services in underserved rural, remote and urban areas. This, combined with the prospect of administratively allocated spectrum, could significantly strengthen community-led efforts and offer a more inclusive and resilient connectivity paradigm. Unlicensed spectrum promotes innovation by providing a cost-effective platform for new technologies, as follows global best practice and allows community-led initiatives to flourishespecially in rural and remote communities.

The telecommunications bill lists 19 cases where the allocation of frequencies via an administrative process is possible; among them is internationally recognized dedicated bands for amateur stations, navigation, telemetry and other similar uses, community radio stations, certain satellite based services such as: Teleporters, TV channels, Direct To Home, Headend In The Sky, Digital Satellite News Gathering, Very Small Aperture Terminal, global mobile personal communication via satellites, national long distance, international long distance, mobile satellite service in L and S bands.

The inclusion of community radio and amateur radio in the list may provide some opportunities for grassroots initiatives, especially in rural areas. However, the lack of more explicit financial support to help with their sustainability is a huge missed opportunity to foster true technological autonomy and innovation. Community Network need local solutions to remain sustainablenot top-down business models that aim solely for maximum profit.

Allowing commercial satellite companies to access frequencies through the same administrative process risks further inhibiting the development of innovative solutions. The ISP market in India is highly concentrated, with very powerful companies often bold in dictating terms. We are already seeing possible threats comes from the established telecommunications industry, directly related to the benefits of the unlicensed use of 6GHz spectrum. It is not realistic to introduce a powerful new actor like the commercial satellite industry into the ISP environment and expect community-led initiatives that offer technological autonomy to thrive as well.

By not fully embracing the potential of community networks, the bill overlooks a critical path to reshaping India’s digital landscape into one that is truly inclusive, resilient and reflective of its diverse needs and aspirations.

A call for renewed connection

In its current form, India’s telecommunications law is a paradox, embodying both the promise of improved connectivity and the danger of increased control and inequality. A truly transformative approach would require a critical reassessment of the bill with increased emphasis on local innovation, equitable access and protection of digital rights.

As it stands, the bill presents a vision of the future that can all too easily succumb to the usual corporate dominance. The push for unlicensed frequency bands to promote cost-effective connectivity and innovation may end up favoring just a few commercial satellite ISPs.

The bill, which aims to update outdated colonial-era laws, paradoxically echoes a colonial mindset in its approach to telecommunications governance. First, it undermines human rights and democratic values ​​through coercive state control and potential internet shutdowns. Second, it promotes easier access to frequencies for predominantly foreign commercial satellite giants, which can hamper the growth of local initiatives and telecommunications infrastructure. This approach not only relegates users to mere consumers of externally provided services, but also inhibits their technological independence, exacerbating the problems of digital colonialism.

ARTICLE 19 thanks Steve Song and Ritu Srivastava, who contributed their expertise to the preparation of this piece.

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