By Dr. Anil Singh, Executive Editor of News24.
New Delhi: The unprecedented global crisis engendered in the wake of the outbreak Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has already wreaked havoc and continues to do so in terms of claiming heavy toll of human lives and wrecking the global economy, including that of India as well. Amidst this unparalleled worldwide crisis, the Maharashtra Cable Operators Federation (MCOF) wrote a letter to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on its new Tariff Order (NTO) 2.0, which came into force from 1 March 2020; thereby calling upon the TRAI to put-off implementation of the NTO 2.0
NTO 2.0 proposes a number of changes to improve the existing television fee system. This includes increasing the number of channels available in the base slab of INR 130 from 100 to 200, a reduction in the prices of a-la-carte channels, as well as a 40% limit on Network Capacity Charge (NCF) for multi TV subscribers. But at such a critical juncture it is paramount to find measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, the implementation of NTO 2.0 would be inappropriate.
COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc in countries such as China, Italy, France, Iran and other countries, with thousands of deaths taking place along with insufficient medical facilities and pushing the global economy on the verge of collapse. In the wake of mounting number of patients affected by this virus in India, various state governments are informing the citizens of precautionary measures such as maintaining social distance and sanitizing the means of public transport, to avoid a situation that could prove difficult to handle. In this context, it is very important in the coming two weeks to ensure that the disease does not spread throughout the country and does not cause unprecedented damage.
In this context, agencies around the world are reducing human interaction by banning social and religious ceremonies. Workplaces have been advised to direct their employees to work from home wherever possible, and many countries have closed their borders or implemented strict restrictions on travel. At such a critical juncture, it also devolves on TRAI to also think about the consequences of implementing this order. There are over 60,000 local cable operators (LCOs) in India, who mostly work on a small scale. Thus, most people do not have the ability to remotely implement complex regulatory and technological changes.
Thus, these operators will have to carry out the implementation themselves, in which they will have to go and interact with many customers at home, at a time when it is advised to avoid all unnecessary human interaction. This would be equivalent to forcing small LCO operators to make daily contact with many people. At the same time, the big operator has the means and the ability to implement it remotely.
Even Prime Minister of India in his recent broadcast to the nation has talked of difficulties in dealing with this pandemic and urged the people to observe Janata Curfew on March 22, an exercise that may be replicated if the situation deteriorates further and such a scenario not only speaks of the gravity of the situation but also signals alarms for the LCO operators to carry out their activities.
The implementation of NTO 2.0 in the midst of a public health crisis would; therefore, be unfairly biased against smaller LCOs. They will face the unfortunate choice between advancing their business and taking the risk of being infected, and would later become a vector spreading the infection to other people, which may also include beneficiary consumers as well. In addition, the transition is unlikely to be so straightforward, and consumers will have a scope for a problem or inquiry on a range of issues, leading to more interaction and consequently increasing the risk of exposure to infection.
Although the spread of COVID-19 could not be predicted, TRAI must now take a responsible step and postpone the implementation until the risk of widespread infection is eliminated. As a regulator, it should ensure that implementation is not particularly painful for any stakeholder, especially those with less resources and capabilities. While it is important to implement the reform, in times of such unprecedented and severe crises, TRAI must recognize that the urgency to bring the global pandemic threat under control is much more significant than the urgency of implementation of NTO 2.0.