The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) will firm up its views on the contentious issue of differential pricing of telecom services by the end of January, its chairman said at an open house discussion.
Trai held an open-house discussion on differential pricing of data services on Thursday amidst an ongoing row among telecom operators, consumer rights groups, industry bodies and individuals over the issue of net neutrality.
While telecom companies and Facebook stuck to their guns pitching for allowing differential pricing, a key aspect of the entire debate, net neutrality activists opposed any such move.
Major telecom companies like Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular, Reliance Communications, Sistema Shyam, Tata Communications, Videocon Telecom, and Vodafone argued for differential pricing, citing the practice of extending voice service to data service.
"Differential pricing should be incorporated as were done in voice telephony. Data should be encouraged while the content part can be taken up in another consultation paper," a Vodafone representative said.
The volunteer-led 'savetheinternet.in' coalition said, "Internet is not a marketplace. Though telcos advocate differential pricing in the name of different customer classes, when they charge for third party content, it becomes a problem."
Civil society organisations also made detailed submissions, explaining their positions. While most, including industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India, said they were against differential pricing, some took a slightly cautious view.
"What hasn't been discussed is that there is already differential pricing and this is undocumented," said a representative of Centre for Internet and Society. "Free Basics isn't following certain protocol standards, and this is a concern. We don't have enough data on internet usage, costs, user experience, to take a decision now," he added.
"It was a very lively consultation, the hall was full. We will take all these into account and hope that by the end of the month, we should be able to come out with our position," Trai chairman Ram Sewak Sharma later told reporters.
He, however, refused to link this consultation paper to the broader topic of net neutrality.
"Net neutrality is a different subject. First we will decide differential pricing, then we will look at other issues. I cannot say at this time what Trai will do on the larger issue of net neutrality, but we will certainly take a call," Sharma said.
The issue also did not elicit much debate as expected as Facebook, whose zero-rated programme called Free Basics has been at the centre of the controversy surrounding the differential pricing paper, did not actively participate in the debate.
Facebook India's policy head Ankhi Das, after a recent round of high octave communication between Trai and Facebook was made public, did not turn up.
A representative of Facebook merely said, "As a company we have commented. With Free Basics we hope to bring people online in a non-discriminatory manner... We hope Trai will encourage Free Basics."
Tata Communications compared the internet to pizza, which became the butt of several jokes on social media and in the open house.
IAMAI president Subho Ray's candid commentary on submissions, calling some of them "badly done homework", did not go down well with some members of the audience.
Software industry body National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) was conspicuously absent.
Individual entrepreneurs opposed the idea of differential pricing as that meant telcos getting to decide the access for their business.
Some people like Digital Empowerment Foundation founder Osama Manzar suggested alternatives like unlicensed spectrum or Wi-Fi to be used to provide access in the rural areas.
Trai launched the differential pricing consultation paper on 9 December, which was followed by Facebook's mass campaign, asking its users to support Free Basics, urging them to email Trai in support of "digital equality" and supporting Free Basics.
The campaign drew a lot of flak from both Trai and civil society and savetheinternet.in coalition.
Facebook also made public on Tuesday its response to Trai's last letter, but Tari chief Sharma declined to comment on the letter at the open house.