After prohibiting mobile operators from providing differential data tariffs through select tie-ups with content providers, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on Thursday came out with a consultation paper to explore what kind of free data the telcos can provide without violating its earlier regulation. Though the regulator said that the scope of providing free data would be only through an operator-agnostic platform, meaning where the telcos cannot play the role of gatekeepers, one of the models suggested by it can create problems of a level playing field, something which Trai wanted to address by prohibiting differential tariffs.
For instance, Trai has suggested three models for free data while inviting suggestions for more. The first model is the reward one wherein content providers give cash back or free minutes or free recharge to consumers who download apps or similar content from their services platforms. Currently, mCent, Gigato, Taskbucks, Ladoo, etc, provide this kind of scheme.
The second model suggested is very similar to the first but instead of a reward or cash back there’s no data charge for consumers. Thus in essence it is similar to Airtel’s zero rating or Facebook’s Free Basics, which are now prohibited.
However, Trai now says it can be allowed if the operators do not play the role of gatekeepers but remain passive. This means that if any content provider makes any of its service free of charge, it has to apply to the subscribers of all the mobile operators and vice versa.
The third model is a direct subsidy model wherein the content provider reimburses a certain sum directly into the bank accounts of consumers for surfing a site or downloading an app.
Analysts said that while the first and last models are simple and do not complicate matters, the second one may create problems for which heavy regulation may be required. For instance, on the face of it an e-commerce platform will have to sign up with every mobile operator if it wants to provide any free service to consumers. Similarly, an operator cannot refuse any e-commerce player. However, the rates at which a mobile operator signs with individual e-commerce players may differ and thus may prohibit smaller players to get on board. To check such a phenomenon, Trai may have to regulate each such agreements signed between an operator and content providers, which may lead to a heavy regulatory hand.
“There may be a number of other possible solutions to provide free data or suitable reimbursement to users, without violating principles of differential pricing for data laid down by Trai regulation. The objective of this consultation is to explore such models and frame regulations to facilitate them,” it said in its consultation paper.
The new consultation paper comes in the wake of operators such as Bharti Airtel and the industry body Cellular Operators Association of India, urging the regulator to review its earlier rules on differential pricing for data services.
They have also asked it for clarification on the kind of tie-ups they can go for and what exactly is meant by intranet services, where differential tariffs are allowed.
For instance, Bharti Airtel had late last month sought Trai ‘s permission, since the company said it is close to tying up with a US-based global content provider which would offer it video content on an exclusive basis to its subscribers within its network. COAI earlier this week wrote to the regulator for clarification as some of the telecom companies wanted to offer content while the data charges would be subsidised by way of advertising revenue-share with the content provider.
Stakeholders can submit their written comments to the regulator until June 16, and offer their counter-comments until June 30, Trai has said.
Consumers can download apps from an operator-neutral platform wherein users will be rewarded back in terms of data or voice minutes for using services on the app
Consumers will be able to access certain websites/ apps without having to pay for data charges, but instead the content owner subsidises
Direct benefit transfer model
Similar to the direct benefit transfer prevalent for LPG cylinders, the technology platform will transfer directly to the consumers accounts