The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet “approved Vaghela’s appointment as the new Trai chairperson for a three-year period or till he attains the age of 65 years,” the Department of Personnel & Training said in a notification late Monday.
A 1986 batch Indian Administrative Service officer, Vaghela was previously commissioner of commercial tax in Gujarat and played a crucial role in the rollout of the goods and services tax in 2017. More recently, he was chairman of the Empowered Group-3, which was responsible for production, procurement, import and distribution channels of medical gear, including PPEs, masks and ventilators amid the Covid-19 crisis.
“The new Trai chairman will have to see through the digital transformation of the telecom sector and make it healthy… he should facilitate the flow of investments and also look into the optimal pricing and quantum of 5G spectrum,” TV Ramachandran, president of the Broadband India Forum, told ET.
“The industry is keenly looking for the leadership and support of the regulator and government for creating a more stable regulatory environment which is essential for further growth of the digital services sector,” said SP Kochhar, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, representing Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea.
“The new Trai chairman has to help settle nerves by indicating firm plans on 5G, find a pragmatic solution for AGR (adjusted gross revenue), the USO fund and issues around the industry’s financial health by creating a healthy market place for survival of telcos,” ex-Reliance Jio MD Sandip Das said. He said Vaghela should expedite decisions and plans announced over the past two years.
Vaghela’s appointment signals the end of Sharma’s action-packed tenure during which voice calls became almost free and data tariffs crashed to all-time lows with the entry of Reliance Jio in September 2016. That led to consolidation in the sector, which shrank to three private operators from eight or nine in each telecom circle previously.
Under Sharma, Trai was at the centre of feuds on issues such as pricing of services, interconnection usage charges and points of interconnection between Jio and Bharti Airtel, and the then standalone Vodafone India and Idea Cellular, which merged in August 2018 to form Vi.
Sharma-led Trai came up with recommendations around net neutrality, which underlined free and non-discriminatory access to the web, which have since been included in the telecom licence conditions. In 2016, Trai banned Facebook’s Free Basics service, which offered users free and limited access to the internet, saying it violated the principles of net neutrality. Sharma was instrumental in tightening norms around quality of services and reining in pesky calls and text messages.
“Sharma had presided over a turbulent period but lent statesman-like fortitude and dignity to his role… and a testimony to this is his being offered a second tenure,” Das said.
According to former VSNL chairman BK Syngal, the telecom sector consolidation during Sharma’s tenure was not in the way it was meant to be and was the result of infirmities in regulation.
“One hopes the new Trai chairman will ensure fairness and remove regulatory uncertainty to restore the confidence of big-ticket investors in India’s telecom sector,” said Syngal.
A 1978 batch IAS officer, Sharma was appointed Trai chairman in August 2015 and his term was extended by two years in 2018, a day before he was to demit office. It was the first time that a Trai chairman was given a second term since the inception of the regulator in 1997.