Despite being the second-largest smartphone market in the world—not to mention the fastest growing—India has very few checks and balances in place to control telecom equipment quality. This has resulted in everything from mobile phone batteries heating up or outright exploding. Radiation emissions being above prescribed limits. And the very real threat of data theft and spying. These dangers aren’t just limited to smartphones either. There are examples galore of other telecom equipment, like routers, for instance, being equally susceptible to safety and quality issues. Any way you dice it, a substantial amount of poor quality products are dumped in India.

But with the Huawei controversy exploding over the past few months, this lackadaisical approach to telecom equipment standards simply isn’t tenable. For those not in the know, Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei has faced allegations that its equipment could be used by China to spy on other countries. Huawei India’s revenue for 2017 (Huawei follows the calendar year for accounting) was a cool $1.16 billion.

Concerns about telecom equipment, though, go far beyond Huawei. Currently, about 97% of telecom equipment used in the country is imported. India imported about $21 billion worth of telecom equipment in FY18, up from $16.2 billion in FY17. And the crazy part? Most of the equipment used in the country—barring equipment procured by the government itself—is self-certified. This, despite some experts comparing self-certification to asking a student to check her own exam paper. Unless there are proper third-party audits, self-certification can’t be trusted, they say.

For government procured equipment, things are better—all equipment must be approved by the  Department of Telecom’s (DoT) nodal agency for this very purpose, the TEC (Telecom Engineering Centre). However, if the government’s recent noises are to believed, MTCTE (Mandatory Testing and Certification of Telecom Equipments) might soon become a reality across the board. This means that any telecom equipment—both imported or locally produced—will have to qualify on certain parameters to be sold to operators. TEC will be in charge of approvals, and no telecom equipment—including mobile phones—can be sold in the country without being tested and certified.

This will be easier said than done, though. While the government set 1 April as the deadline to introduce MTCTE, this is unlikely to proceed as planned. In all likelihood, this deadline will be extended, with a notification regarding the same expected before the month ends.

The impending delay is on account of strong lobbying from billion-dollar equipment manufacturing companies (backed by their telecom operator clients, of course), with the government seemingly bowing to the whims of the powers that control the market. This, despite domestic companies as well as a relatively unexpected lobby—testing companies—in staunch support of MTCTE. To make matters worse, India is also woefully underprepared to implement MTCTE, at least for the foreseeable future

With global concerns about telecom equipment security growing, the fact that India is set to allow the MTCTE deadline to come and go to no avail is worrying.

AUTHOR

Vandana

Vandana is based in Delhi. She covers vertically focussed startups in consumer internet space and also writes on travel tech and smartphones for The Ken. She has spent 13 years in journalism covering a wide range of subjects- equity markets, mutual funds to education and skilling, working at organisations such as Business Standard, CNBC TV18 and The Week in the past.

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