More reports on: Telecom Regulatory Authority of India

Trai floats consultation paper on net neutrality

20 May 2016

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has floated a new consultation paper on net neutrality, looking at the issue of 'free data'.

The paper asks whether free data can be provided to users without violating its previous order that banned discriminatory pricing for some content and websites (See: India opts for net neutrality, bars differential pricing). The paper asks whether there are such models to provide free data to users, like zero-rating (though the term is not used in the paper) and if it is possible to implement them without letting telecom service providers (TSPs) become the gate-keeper.

The latest Trai paper calls for comments from all stake-holders to be submitted by 16 June, while counter-comments are to be submitted by 30 June. The paper raises four questions.

Whether there is need for a ''TSP agnostic platform to provide free data or suitable reimbursement to users, without violating the principles of Differential Pricing for Data laid down in TRAI Regulation.''

It wants stake-holders to suggest the most suitable model to achieve the objective.

It also asks whether these platforms or models (TSP-agnostic and providing free data) should be regulated by Trai, or should market forces be allowed to develop these.

The papers also asks whether free data or any suitable reimbursement to users should be limited to mobile data users only, or could it be extended through technical means to subscribers of fixed line broadband. It also asks for comments on other issues which might be relevant to this debate.

Essentially Trai's paper is calling for alternative solutions to address the issue of providing free data access to users, especially those who can't afford data. This was something that Facebook's Free Basics had claimed to offer, an argument that was not accepted by Trai.

Trao's paper notes that there ''is a need to have some TSP agnostic platform which can facilitate app developer to promote their website by providing some incentive to user for making their website popular.''  The paper says the ''un-connected and under-connected consumer'' should get better connectivity without allowing any TSP or large company to play the role of a gate-keeper.

The paper insists that any model which offers this free data ''should use the principles of open, transparent and equal access to consumer services by all consumers and all businesses.'' Interestingly, it goes on to suggest three such models, one of which is a TSP-agnostic zero-rating platform.

Suggested models
The first model suggested is a 'reward-based' one, where an action like say paying a bill or recharge can result in some free data being given to the user.

The second model is a 'don't charge' or free API model, which sounds a lot like zero-rating platforms.  Trai's paper says, ''This model is also prevalent in many developed markets, allowing free access to certain websites and applications. This helps the businesses make their service easily accessible without impacting the mobile bill of the consumers. In this model, the TSP does not act as a gatekeeper and plays a passive role.''

The regulator, it appears, is suggesting is a zero-rating platform without giving powers to the TSP.

The paper goes on to explain that in this model ''the platform owner has a business interest to allow any and every content provider making the model neutral. This model will work for mobile subscribers who have zero-balance as the subscribers are not being charged so they don't need balance.''

The third model suggested in the paper is the ''direct money transfer approach'' where the user pays for the connection like any normal connection, and later the subsidy is sent directly to their mobile account. Given the kind of debate that Net Neutrality has generated in India in the last couple of months, there's no doubt that this paper will also be hotly debated.

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