The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's final attempt at shaping the contours of net neutrality a principle that has seen civil society advocates and multinational technology corporations at loggerheads over the last year will likely kick-off with a two-step consultation process in a day or two.
Trai chairman R S Sharma's reported goal is to construct an overarching framework on net neutrality and then pass those recommendations to the Department of Telecommunications, which will take a final call on official policy.
This time around however, unlike the issue of differential pricing of data, the regulatory process will consist of two different components: a 'pre-consultation' process that will first decide the issues that make up net neutrality and then a proper consultation process that will address those issues and the questions that are posed.
''We are issuing a pre-consultation paper tomorrow [Thursday] or day after [Friday]. The way I look at it is that in a month's time we will be done with the pre-consultation process. Thereafter we will formulate the final consultation paper,'' Sharma told The Wire in an interview.
This two-step process of consultation, according to reports, is advantageous for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gives Trai a bit of breathing room in being able to comprehensively frame the issues for the final consultation paper instead of tackling it through multiple papers and over the course of six to eight months.
For example, the regulatory process on differential pricing of data is still essentially ongoing, with Trai issuing another consultation paper last week on whether 'free data' or non-discriminatory zero-rating models of Internet access should be allowed.
Secondly, unlike the 'differential pricing of data' aspect of net neutrality where Trai was able to step in and issue regulation the final call on other issues of net neutrality that are likely to be on the table this time, including throttling and fast-lanes, will not be taken by the telecom regulator but will be decided by the Department of Telecommunications and the government.
''[I] don't want to define net neutrality, but broadly there are five issues. The networks must not treat traffic in a different manner, all traffic for a network is equal. It should receive equal treatment. So what we have done thus far in the discriminatory pricing regulation, we have tackled the issue of net neutrality from a tariff perspective. The two other issues which remain
one is throttling and the other is fast lane. These two issues will be included in this [consultation process], besides any other issues which might have bearing on this subject,'' said Sharma.
The incoming consultation process, however well-intentioned, will still almost certainly split the attention and focus of net neutrality supporters who have to attend to both the yet-to-be-released pre-consultation paper and last week's consultation paper on free data.
Last week's paper on the nuances of zero-rating, in particular, has been seen by a section of net neutrality supporters as a disappointing U-turn or doubling back on the part of Trai.
Sharma, however, vehemently disagrees. He believes that with the controversy surrounding Facebook's Free Basics and Airtel Zero late last year, the question of coming up with non-TSP or gatekeeper-centric models of free internet access was largely ignored and made ''insignificant''.
''No in fact, this is completely wrong to say that this issue has been addressed. This question [different zero-rating models] was asked [last time]
this question became insignificant in the last consultation on differential pricing,'' he said.
One of the examples Sharma gives is that of an e-governance website that is looking to promote itself. ''The second question of the differential pricing paper last December was can we have a mechanism of free internet or subsidised internet
irrespective of the pipe in which they come. For e-governance websites, can we have some architecture that provides free data to them without depending on which TSP they visit the website through.''