Net neutrality: TRAI should ask telecoms to invest more

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Indian telecom regulator, TRAI, has initiated the debate over a free and open internet by issuing an eagerly awaited paper that intends to define net neutrality and identify relevant issues, such as throttling speeds and regulating communication apps.

The debate rages on in India where regulations are still to be applied to any services including telecom ranging from difference in charges for various categories of trains, flights, theaters, hotels, housing, etc.

India’s one billion plus population does not get access to quality mobile and Internet services across the country. TRAI should encourage telecom network operators to make additional investment (Capex) in expanding and improving quality of telecom networks to ensure the best mobile Internet coverage.

Private telecoms own the mobile network. TRAI should not control telecoms if they are enhancing the delivery of the content or services which will be available on their network? It’s a business model for telecoms.

Indians pay extra money to travel in a non-stop flight to ensure that we can deliver our services without delay. We pay extra for travelling in an AC train than a non-AC train. Why telecoms should not give differential treatment to their clients if they are paying more. At the same time, TRAI should discourage and punish telecoms if they are slowing the speed of a one particular service because their clients do not have money for better networks.

India with more than 331 million internet users amidst which 94 percent belong to wireless is ripe for net neutrality. Soon the data sector of the telecom industry will witness a change along the lines of the transformation which took place in voice communication few decades back.

Instead further regulating telecoms by issuing net neutrality guidelines, TRAI and the India government should encourage telecoms to make investment to ensure more coverage and better quality services.

What TRAI wants

In a pre-consultation paper issued on Monday, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has requested for views from stakeholders on six main questions, including what should sum up as the core principle and policy approach toward net neutrality in India. The report requests solutions which will provide a balance between ensuring openness and reasonable traffic management by telecoms and internet service providers (ISPs) for legitimate needs.

Also, TRAI sought views on the reasonable traffic management practices that carriers may need to adopt while also keeping in mind in how to prevent misuses. This topic covers one of the key issues of net neutrality without the one where service providers have to slow down or speed up access to websites.

India may add to the list of countries that will clearly define net neutrality and its binding principles. The pre-consultation report on net neutrality was disclosed after the department of telecommunications sought the regulator’s views.

The throttling of speed and fast lanes have already been banned by the US Federal Communications Commission, although the US regulator has not taken actions on barring zero-rated products. On the other hand, France and Germany have taken regulatory views which do not adhere to pure net neutrality.

The paper also conveys the purpose of checking any throttling or blocking of websites by mobile operators to prevent discrimination and paid prioritization, with special attention on top applications like WhatsApp, Viber, Hike, Facebook, etc, which the regulator seeks to be put under the same-service, same-rule framework.

Online video business

The online video advertisements industry in the country which is a business worth Rs 500 crore in India, may have to face some regulations, suggests the report. TRAI is conducting examinations to sort out the issues related to automatic video advertisements that buffer and use internet data on a website without seeking explicit authorization of the consumer. To quote an example, a student surfing an informative website for educational purposes ends up spending unnecessary data without knowledge as an impact of these buffering video advertisements.

Meanwhile supporters of a free internet are pressurizing the government body and political parties to come forth with a broad framework that allows an open internet. The government has repeatedly said it will follow the principle of net neutrality with Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad conveying the government to be committed to a free, fair and democratic internet.

TRAI had previously asked telecoms to keep constantly alerting the consumers about their data usage as soon a certain amount of data has been consumed from the user subscribed internet packs. With technologies such as 4G and wireless broadband providing faster internet speeds, teenage use of cellular data for smartphone video has witnessed a rise of 127 percent in just 15 months from 2014 to 2015 with the net usage being even higher, hence leading to major investments being made into internet video campaigns.

Take the example of YouTube, where a company is charged higher for an advertisement which precedes the video the user intends to watch, cannot be skipped by a user. TRAI has put forth the argument that while these video advertisements are played, the video that the user wants to watch is buffered and thus the process results in a seamless experience, with the backdrop being that the consumer spends unintentional data on that advertisement.

Zero rating of data

Globally, zero rating of data has on debate for a long time. In many countries, regulators have allowed it on a case-to-case basis. However in India, TRAI has banned it completely. Alternatively it has issued a carrier-controlled walled garden concept in which telecom operators can host select applications and content on their own servers or cloud and provide those at reduced prices to their consumers.

The paper also deals with concerns such as traffic management and restricted internet access, with TRAI giving the opinion that  telecoms must treat all internet traffic on an equal basis, without regard to the type, origin, or destination of the content or the means of its transmission. TRAI also added that the telecoms must not throttle internet speed or block any application or service without taking permission from the authorities.

The report also asks for suggestions on a new law incorporating principles of net neutrality to replace the Indian Telegraph Act, while asking if regulatory oversight should be imposed on applications such as WhatsApp’s calling service and Skype that allow voice calls.

With TRAI having sought views on its pre-consultation paper by June 21, analysts convey that several confusions regarding the net neutrality topic can lead to some delay in responses from the telecoms. The regulator had earlier initiated a consultative process with a regulation banning differential pricing alongside a recently released consultation paper examining if mobile operators can provide free data.

Defining net neutrality and its binding principles clearly can only put an end to the debates and actions taken by telecom operators to stimulate demand by zero-rating select offerings to boost internet traffic and monetize their investments.

Indian telecom regulator and the Union government have already forced telecoms to go slow on investment due to high spectrum price and less pro-active policies. Net neutrality guidelines will prompt telecoms to make less investment if telecoms have less freedom

Vina Krishnan
[email protected]