Within days of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposing a plan to dismantle the existing net neutrality regulations in the US, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has recommended upholding the basic principle of keeping the internet free. The proposals of Trai, when accepted by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), would ensure that no service provider can restrict, discriminate or interfere in the treatment of content by blocking, slowing down, degrading or granting preferential speeds while providing internet access.
“No one owns the internet... so, it should be open and accessible to everyone,” Trai Chairman RS Sharma said.
Although Trai has addressed key concerns such as discriminatory treatment of content, zero-rating etc, it has exempted specialised services, critical internet of things (IoT) services, and content delivery networks (CDN) of operators from the proposed regulation. Trai said on Tuesday that the DoT might identify what these specialised services should be.
Even as the FCC votes on December 14 to decide whether the net neutrality rules adopted by it in 2015 would be revoked or not in America, no time-frame has been set for a policy in India.
Trai, which had last year debarred telecom operators from offering differential pricing of data, putting an end to Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero, has sought a change in the licence conditions to restrict any form of discrimination in Internet access based on content.
A report by Edelweiss pointed out that the CDN exemption was likely to benefit integrated operators trying to create content ecosystem to drive user traction. “We expect Reliance Jio and Bharti (Airtel) to sustain leading positions in this space. They could leverage CDN exemption and offer platform content at lower prices to drive traction within their subscriber base,” Edelweiss said.
CDN enables telecom service providers (TSP) to deliver content within their network without going through the public internet.
Reliance Jio has its own content platforms like JioTV, JioCinema, JioMusic, JioCloud, JioMags etc whereas Airtel too has Wynk Movies, Wynk Music, Wynk Games etc.
India has always backed an open internet. In fact, the intent of the government to always keep internet free and non-discriminatory was expressed by then Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in Parliament about two years ago.
Trai said service providers should be restricted from entering into any arrangement or contract with anybody that has the effect of discriminatory treatment based on content, sender or receiver, protocols or user equipment.
“The scope of proposed principles on non-discriminatory treatment applies specifically to internet access services which are generally available to the public,” Trai added.
The regulator, however, has allowed service providers to deploy traffic management practices (TMP), which the operators need to declare when deployed and what impact it would have on users.
The regulator wants DoT to establish a multi-stakeholder body comprising telecom operators, ISPs, content providers, civil society organisations and consumer representatives to monitor and probe violations.
This body would be "responsible for developing technical standards pertaining to monitoring of traffic management practices and enforcement of principles on non-discriminatory treatment and making appropriate recommendations to the authority".
Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), representing GSM telcos such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea, said the proposals were principally in agreement with the industry submissions ‘’regarding the narrow issue of net neutrality, as encompassing, no paid prioritization, no throttling, no fast lanes, while allowing network management, etc.’’
“We are at the same time disappointed that the Authority did not adopt industry recommendation to have a wider approach to net neutrality, where issues of OTT (over-the-top) players, definition of net neutrality to include issues around connecting the next 1 billion unconnected users, national development priorities, etc., were not considered,” Rajan S Mathews, DG, COAI, said.
However, IT industry association Nasscom said it was happy with Trai’s commitment to preserve the democracy of the internet and user rights to the freedom of speech and expression.
“The recommendations will promote equitable access to the internet for every citizen. It would ensure a level playing field for IT and OTT services providers to innovate and customize in India and provide a constantly expanding range of new services relevant to every individual. We believe that the recommendations made by Trai should be evaluated and taken up for implementation in a speedy manner,” Nasscom said.
In India, the debate over net neutrality kicked off in 2015 when Trai came out with a consultation paper on the regulatory framework for OTT services. One of the questions in the paper was if telecom service providers should be allowed to price data differentially based on content.
Some of the operators were offering free services through their tie-ups with content providers at that point. Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ as well as Airtel Zero were particularly highlighted by net neutrality activists and the services were later banned by the regulator.