Amendment To Telecom Act: Govt set to clip BTRC wings
The telecom regulatory commission will be shorn of whatever independence and powers it has if the government presses on with the planned amendment to Bangladesh Telecommunications Act.
Experts said this would be highly detrimental to the growth of the telecom industry at a time when the world is on the verge of the fourth industrial revolution.
Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) was formed under the telecom act in 2002, in a move to have an independent body regulating all matters concerning telecommunications.
But the draft Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulation Act 2021 has removed the word "independent" in relation to the BTRC.
The BTRC will have to cede most of its powers to the telecommunication ministry. It will not be able to take any effective measures quickly; it will have to wait on a decision from the telecom ministry.
The original act, which took effect in 2001, stated that the commission can issue and revoke various types of licences for telecommunication services, allocate wireless frequencies, and fix tariffs on telecom services, call charges and so on.
Those powers were partially curtailed by an amendment in 2010. That amendment required the BTRC to take the ministry's approval when it came to issuing telecom licences, renewing, transferring or revoking licences and setting tariffs on different services.
But the 2021 draft amendment goes much further than that. It requires that the commission take the ministry's approval for almost everything it plans to do.
Also, under this, the BTRC will have to forward its revenue earned from licences and spectrum to the exchequer. At present, the proceeds are kept with the BTRC.
Save for commissioners, who are appointed by the government, the BTRC can now recruit, appoint, transfer and promote its employees irrespective of grade.
But in the draft act, the ministry has the power to recruit, appoint, promote, transfer and penalise BTRC employees from grade-1 to grade-9, without involving the chairman of the commission.
The commission can only recruit, appoint, promote, transfer and penalise employees from grade-10 to grade-20, which are the lower-tier employees.
Also, the commission's chairman will no longer be able to issue government order (GO) for grade 1-9 officers' tour abroad under the proposed telecom act.
In the original act, the Supreme Court judges could investigate allegations of moral turpitude against the commissioner and remove him/her if found guilty. The draft amendment gives that responsibility to the ministry.
"If the telecommunications act is amended in this way, an important institution like BTRC will be destroyed," said Md Jahurul Haque, a former BTRC chairman.
The telecommunications sector will fall into the hands of the bureaucracy and there will be no transparency in its operations, he added.
The International Telecommunication Union has placed Bangladesh at 23rd position among 27 Asian countries in its latest regulatory index, said Abu Saeed Khan, senior policy fellow at LIRNEasia, a Colombo-based information and communication technology policy and regulation think-tank active in the Asia Pacific region.
Bangladesh ranks four steps behind Afghanistan, seven steps behind Bhutan and 12 steps behind Pakistan.
"The amendment will further relegate Bangladesh, as bureaucrats are hijacking the regulatory functions from the BTRC. It is a humiliating contrast to the country's improvement in other indicators," Khan added.
BTRC Chairman Shyam Sunder Sikder said they have submitted the regulator's opinion as per the call of the telecom division.
"I think the commission should be allowed to act as a commission," he said.
The challenges and roadblocks that are impeding the growth of the industry were not addressed in the draft law, said Tanjib-ul Alam, an expert on telecom law.
The technology is being upgraded and converged on a regular basis but there are no rules or guidelines to cope with the new ideas and technologies in the draft law.
"Nothing is put up in the law in case of innovation. There are no clear-cut ideas about how it will work and implement the Digital Bangladesh roadmap."
All this draft law does is deny the commission its independent status and tighten the government's grip on the sector, said Alam, who was involved in drafting of the existing telecom act.
While some of the suggested amendments will clarify current ambiguities, most of the provisions appear to be aimed at reducing the status of the commission into a department of the telecom ministry and expanding the power of interception and instant punishment through mobile court.
The proposed amendment regarding alternative dispute settlement (section 89B) is not at all encouraging for attracting foreign or local investment.
It does not secure the fairness and independence of the arbitrators, as no scope is given to the parties to nominate their arbitrators.
"The most objectionable part of the whole scheme of amendment is that the government has abandoned the idea of avoiding conflict of interest. If the proposed amendment is implemented, the government will become both the regulator and operator," Alam added.
Mustafa Jabbar, posts and telecoms minister, however, defended the changes brought to the draft Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulation Act 2021.
"What's the harm there if the BTRC is under the government? The BTRC cannot and should not take any decision bypassing the government or the ministry. A regulator cannot function without the government."
The commission enjoyed outsize authority, according to Jabbar.
"We have seen it function in an autocratic manner, especially in the case of appointments," he said, adding that the BTRC had recruited overaged personnel and promoted and transferred employees at will, using their autonomy.
The amendment seeks to bring such activities under a formal framework.
Besides, a sector as dynamic as the telecom sector cannot function effectively with a 20-year-old act. "That's why we have taken the initiative to amend the act," Jabbar added.
Tanjib-ul Alam, however, observed, "The draft amendment does not at all seem in tune with the rapid changes that are taking place in telecom and information technology sectors both at national and international levels. It instead seems bent on clipping the powers of the regulator, which is an ominous sign."