The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India s (TRAI) decision to ban differential data pricing was hailed as a big victory for net neutrality. The decision led to termination of Facebook s ambitious Free Basics program and zero rating programs like Airtel Zero in the country. While the regulator is still mulling over a comprehensive framework, it recently floated a new consultation paper on net neutrality. In the paper, the regulator has sought comments on a possible model for providing free internet without breaching net neutrality. As expected, the consultation paper had triggered speculations that the regulator may be giving a window of opportunity to the likes of Facebook to relaunch Free Basics-like programs. Also Read - Free Basics is no longer available in India, Facebook confirmsAlso Read - Facebook Free Basics, Airtel Zero banned in India, TRAI says no to discriminatory data pricing
TRAI chairman Ram Sewak Sharma recently told reporters that the regulator had no problem with someone providing free content or at a discount rate but it has to be available to all subscribers of all telecom operators. In a recent interview with FactorDaily, he elaborated his views on net neutrality. Here are three key takeaways from Sharma s interview on the issue. Also Read - PMO appoints high-powered committee to look into Net Neutrality vs Free Basics debate: Report
Free Basics basically can still return: Facebook had shut down its Free Basics service after the regulator banned the zero-rated internet services, which entailed a service being exclusively free through a particular telecom operator. Sharma makes it clear that the telecom operators have to be neutral about what data is provided through their channels. The TRAI chairman said that if Facebook provided its Free Basics across all telecom operators and it reimbursed users data, it won t most probably be breaching the net neutrality.
Because essentially, net neutrality means that networks should be neutral about what flows through them. They should be agnostic. They are just data wheelers, so they should get paid for the data wheeling part, he said.
Suppose there is some health website. You say, as an incentive, the customer will not be charged for data access. The government of India may decide that for this e-governance website, education website, health website, can we have toll free access? This should be without the website having an agreement with the telcos, he further explained.
Though there s no concrete framework for this, the TRAI chairman suggested that the telcos could reveal APIs that allows content providers to know which customer is using which data plan, and reimburse for the data and time spent on their website, and that the process does not involve telcos.
Free markets work
One of the major concerns about the zero rated programs was that cash-rich companies could use their money power to oppress other services that could not afford to offer free access. Apparently the TRAI chairman believes that is not against net neutrality but a natural market phenomenon.
Today Flipkart sells products at a 30 percent discount, which a new website can t afford. This is business stuff, not net neutrality stuff it doesn t give advantage to the network provider. Which law can prevent giving free books or shirts or anything else to people who visit your website? That s your business strategy, he commented.
VoIP should have a level playing field
Telecom operators have long demanded regularization of the Over-The-Top (OTT) service providers. They have also sought revenue sharing with these OTT players. Back in 2014, Bharti Airtel had fired the first salvo by having special data charges for internet calls through services like Skype and Viber. Though Airtel had to withdraw the plan after users backlash. While the regulator has decided not to restrict technology, it does seek a level-playing field.
Sharma pointed out that telcos cannot offer VoIP services in the country due to issues related to licensing, while OTT players could provide those services without having to get any licensing or sharing of information with the government. This clearly puts carriers at a disadvantage.
Look, we will not like to restrict technology. At the same time, just because you are a licensee doesn t mean you should be disabled from using that technology. So we are exploring if there are other issues which would need to be addressed in internet telephony, he added.
In the recent consultation paper, the regulator didn t refer to demands of telcos to share revenues, but focused on possible misuse of users data.