The Guidelines for Other Service Providers (OSP) issued by the Government earlier this month (New Guidelines) has been one of the most talked about subject in the past couple of weeks. Ever since its release, there has been considerable enthusiasm around it with businesses hoping that the new regime will allow much required flexibility in their operations given that earlier framework had become a lightning rod for being impractical on many fronts.

With limited information available in public domain about the earth shaking step taken by Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to simplify such a complex regime to unprecedented levels that may be considered as brainchild of utopian idealists, a webinar session was hosted by India's leading law firm Khaitan & Co along with Broadband India Forum (BIF) and Association of Competitive Telecom Operators (ACTO). The 90-minute session on 18 November 2020 proved to be instrumental in understanding the build up to the New Guidelines and the key intent behind issuing a principle-based framework that focusses on 'what', leaving the 'how' to the industry. The session also provided an opportunity for stakeholders to come together and share their assessments on New Guidelines.

The icing on the cake was that representatives from various entities had the opportunity to virtually meet Mr Sharad Trivedi, Deputy Director General, DoT who uncloaked how the New Guidelines came into being. The attendees were given to understand that the DoT had commenced its efforts to streamline the legal framework for OSPs in the past couple of years. However, the turn of the tide proved to be the pandemic in March 2020, that led to immediate steps being adopted to ensure employees of OSP centres were permitted to work from home to avoid any business disruption. This led the DoT to provide OSPs with exemptions from various technological, administrative and financial requirements incorporated in the erstwhile OSP regime.

Subsequently, a need for an overhaul was realised and the DoT started collaborating with the industry stakeholders to understand the key issues while battling the epidemic of biblical proportions. In a swift development, the New Guidelines were formulated superseding the earlier framework with a view to provide boost to the outsourcing sector and encourage foreign investors while ensuring that security requirements remained uncompromised. To ease the burden on companies battling imbroglios of compliances under older regime, the DoT has now remarkably allowed placement of Electronic Private Automatic Branch Exchange (EPABX) in foreign countries, adoption of work from anywhere facility for employees of OSP centre and doing away with periodic compliances along with discontinuation of registration requirements for OSP applicants.

A presentation on New Guidelines was made by Mr Harsh Walia, Partner at Khaitan & Co who termed the New Guidelines as a welcome change that will prove to be a bellwether for subsequent policies. He noted that the DoT has acted beyond expectations in simplifying the regime and stressed that there was a need to clarify certain areas (like usage of cloud services by OSPs) in the New Guidelines for the benefit of the industry.

Mr Anish Bhatnagar (General Counsel- India, British Telecom) was the moderator for the event and posed interesting questions to the panel members and also, provided his astute observations on New Guidelines.

One of the panel members, Mr T.V. Ramachandran (President, BIF) hailed the New Guidelines and stated that very few countries around the world can claim to have such liberalized rules for its outsourcing sector. He also stressed that to make 'work from anywhere' feasible, there is a need to make internet connectivity more robust and Government should take progressive steps in this regard. The New Guidelines were also highly appreciated by Mr S. Chandrasekhar (Group Director- Government Affairs and Public Policy, Microsoft) who observed that technology agnostic nature of the New Guidelines will benefit the OSPs and 'work from anywhere' model will be a boon for the workforce. Mr. Saurabh Bhatnagar (President, ACTO) gave an insightful session on how OSPs could implement network setup that would commensurate with the New Guidelines.

The panel members also included industry leaders Mr Vineet Vij (Group General Counsel, Tech Mahindra) and Ms Priya Mahajan (Head of Asia Pacific Public Policy & Regulatory Counsel,
Verizon Communications). Mr Vij expressed his gratitude towards the DoT and termed New Guidelines as 'path breaking'. He stated that self-assessment model envisaged under New Guidelines will also entail that companies act responsibly even though the sector is moving away from the strict regulatory framework. Ms Priya acknowledged the significance of New Guidelines for the industry and welcomed DoT's move to provide adequate flexibility for remote work model. She also mentioned that telecom companies will need to be innovative in building connectivity solutions for the industry as the concept of digital workplace is set to become even bigger in future.

Interestingly, in a poll conducted during the session, industry members voted 'work from anywhere' facility as the biggest benefit extended by way of New Guidelines closely followed by usage of foreign based EPABX and removal of registration requirement. On the other hand, a whopping majority of over 90% attendants believed that New Guidelines would prove to be a game changer. Importantly, a large majority of attendees also voted that clarity on usage of cloud-based services is the most important area that needs to be addressed going forward.

The unanimous view across the industry was that New Guidelines surpass expectations and are no less than a landmark for the outsourcing industry. For the outsourcing sector, it was even pitched to have the same effect as economic liberalization policy of 1991 had on India's economy. The session was also remarkable considering it helped industry members understand the importance of logical partitioning and usage of firewall in OSP setup for alleviating concerns of toll bypass and interconnection issues, as New Guidelines do not expressly cover these aspects.

The big takeaway is that the New Guidelines will step-up India's effort to regain its economic solidarity. Going forward, the DoT will welcome questions from the OSPs in case any clarity is required and the entities are encouraged to reach out to field units of DoT and DoT headquarters for necessary information.

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