The advent of IP technologies and high-speed broadband have blurred the boundaries between the once distinct verticals of telecom, Internet, broadcasting, and electronic media worlds, bringing in new players as well as new opportunities and challenges. Today, convergence of markets, applications, services, and user terminals looks inevitable as it is convenient for consumers as well as promising for market players in creating new opportunities and revenue streams. Consumer expectations have also increased manifold. Today they aspire to have 5 A's, i.e., Any service, on Any device Anytime, Anywhere, using Any network.

It is well known that technological advancements and competitive market promotes convergence. For example, technological advancements in the development of smartphone have converged various gadgets and driven many verticals to merge into a single handheld device. Multiple devices like voice phone, MP3 player, camera, GPS unit, wrist watch, alarm clock, flash light, and many more converged into one device, i.e., the smartphone. Multiple services like voice, video, data, Internet, as well as multiple applications also converged onto the same device.

In this evolving and ever-converging telecom sector, meeting the expectations of all information and communication technology (ICT) stakeholders by creating an environment conducive to investment is critical to stimulating growth of converged markets. This also calls for regulatory reforms that require innovative and forward-looking regulatory actions. Countries around the world may follow different paths of development and use different strategies to promote convergence based on the state of development and nature of their markets.

India has also taken a proactive approach to promote convergence in the telecom sector. National Telecom Policy (NTP)-2012 has envisioned to provide secure, reliable, affordable, and high-quality converged telecommunication services anytime, anywhere for accelerated inclusive socioeconomic development.

The policy references that promote convergence in NTP are:

  • To simplify the licensing framework to further extend converged high-quality services across the nation including rural and remote areas. This will not cover content regulation.
  • To optimize delivery of services to consumers irrespective of their devices or locations by fixed-mobile convergence, thus making valuable spectrum available for other wireless services.
  • To provide continued support from the USO fund for telecom services, including converged communication services in commercially unviable rural and remote areas.

Also, NTP has prescribed the following strategies to promote convergence:

  • To orient, review, and harmonize the legal, regulatory, and licensing framework in a time-bound manner to enable seamless delivery of converged services in a technology- and service-neutral environment.
  • To facilitate convergence of local cable TV networks post-digitization.
  • To move toward a unified license regime in order to exploit the attendant benefits of convergence, spectrum liberalization, and facilitate delinking of the licensing of networks from the delivery of services to the end.
  • Convergence is most likely to thrive in an environment that allows competition between broadband networks and infrastructure and service providers. Nevertheless, regulators need to be particularly attentive to the challenges stemming from convergence in order to pave the way for establishment of a regulatory environment that is transparent, conducive to investment and growth, fosters fair and greater competition as well as innovation, stimulates the deployment of infrastructure, promotes the development of new services, is security conscious, and protects and benefits consumers. Regulators need to refrain from imposing regulatory restrictions, except when strictly necessary, to promote competition and consumer protection and that are proportionate to the established policy goals. Also, the regulators need to adopt appropriate regulations taking into account the relevant technological developments including the roll-out of next-generation networks (NGNs) in the core and access layer (NGA). NGNs and IP-based services may offer the opportunity for operators to take advantage of market convergence and create new revenue streams while expanding access to ICT services at lower costs to consumers.

In this regard, in India, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has also taken certain regulatory initiatives. In July 2005, TRAI released a study paper on NGN. After following a consultative process, TRAI sent its recommendations on this subject to the department of telecommunication (DoT) in March 2006. In addition, TRAI has taken various initiatives which, inter-alia, include the following:

  • Recommendations on provision of IPTV services dated January 4, 2008, addressing issues like licensing, content regulation, down-linking policies, etc. These recommendations paved the way for provisioning of IPTV services by telecom service providers. Cable TV Act was modified and telecom service providers were permitted to provide IPTV services.
  • Recommendations dated August 5, 2010 to the ministry of information and broadcasting regarding implementation of digitization with addressability of cable TV network in a phased manner. This will enable provisioning of broadband service through cable TV networks.
  • Recommendations dated February 11, 2016 to DoT for removal of restriction of interconnection at IP level to ensure seamless IP interconnection between two IP networks.

In order to stimulate investment to grow converged markets, there should be an adaptive regulatory framework that is technology-neutral, simple, and flexible so that there is an easy entry of new players into the market. To simplify licensing regime, TRAI, on April 16, 2012, recommended to DoT to have a unified license (UL). It converges several types of licenses into one UL. The basic features of a UL have been that the allocation of spectrum was delinked from the licenses and it has to be obtained separately as per the prescribed procedure. The unified licensing regime consists of a transition toward a flexible and technology-neutral licensing framework, paving the way for migration to IP networks.

Once large data are generated by users of several converged applications, it is important to have backhaul connectivity, particularly in districts, towns, blocks, and villages. In this direction, timely commissioning of a re-organized version of the national optical fiber network (NOFN) or BharatNet is very important. NOFN and BharatNet projects have planned to connect 250,000 gram panchayats and connect districts with block headquarters. In reference to this, TRAI has recommended the build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) model for implementation of BharatNet project.

Given the pace of change taking place vis-à-vis the time it takes to introduce and implement new legislations and regulations, it is important to try to introduce future-proof regulations. To maximize the positive impact of converged ICTs and to foster innovation for development needs will require deliberate and concerted efforts to ensure that all relevant players - private, public, national, and international - are brought at a common platform. The ideal approach would be not to aim for a big bang to the framework but to consider incremental changes that address the main challenges while maintaining the benefits.

Views expressed above are in personal capacity of the author. These should not be taken as views of TRAI.

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