As Trai gears up to frame the Net Neutrality rules, telecom operators have favoured differential pricing for data services even as nearly 80 per cent replies to the regulator’s consultation process follow the Facebook ‘templates’ for its controversy-ridden Free Basics platform.
While Net Neutrality activists continue to oppose any differential pricing regime, saying it would amount to curbs on freedom of choice to access Internet, Facebook has launched a massive campaign to project its Free Basics platform as a tool to spread web connectivity.
An analysis of a record 24 lakh comments, received by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to its consultation paper on differential pricing for data services, shows that 18.94 lakh replies are in support of Free Basics, of which 13.5 lakh views are through ‘@supportfreebasics.in’ and without the senders’ individual e-mail IDs while further 5.44 lakh comments have come from ‘@facebookmail.com’.
On the other hand, the Net Neutrality campaigners have submitted 4.84 lakh comments through forums like ‘Save the Internet’.
Besides, there are comments from telecom and Internet service providers, industry bodies and individuals.
The telecom operators including Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, Reliance Communications and their respective associations have supported differential pricing for data services, while Internet service providers have opposed the plan.
“For the growth of data service, price differentiation for data services can be allowed,” operators have submitted.
Reliance Jio Infocomm though has not submitted its comments on the matter.
A debate on net neutrality stirred across the country after Airtel decided to charge separately for Internet-based calls but withdrew it later after people protested. The debate heated up after Airtel launched free Internet platform Airtel Zero and later Facebook also launched its Internet.Org platform, renamed as Free Basics.
Nasscom said issues concerning differential pricing for data services need careful consideration because of their possible impact on net neutrality.
The IT industry body said data plans offered by telecom companies to the consumer has to be neutral between their own and competing Internet platforms and services.
Telecom industry bodies COAI and AUSPI supported differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications or platforms as they feel it is critical for promoting innovation in the Internet eco-system and bringing more people online.
Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) said it strongly opposes differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications and platforms.
“Differential pricing will skew the market forcing hundreds of thousands of websites and applications out of business by unfairly driving traffic towards lower cost destinations,” ISPAI said.
It added differential pricing will only benefit large content companies and large telecom service providers (TSPs), since these larger players will have the resources and reach to work with each other.
The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) IAMAI, whose members include Facebook, Google and other Internet companies, has voiced against platforms like Free Basics that can lead to creation of different prices of Net based on content or websites people want to access.
IAMAI said that different pricing models mentioned in the consultation paper are not only violating the core principles of TRAI’s pricing regulation but also the principles of Net neutrality.
Airtel raised issue of price difference between calls made through traditional network and Internet. It recommended allowing different price for data or Internet when used for making calls.
“Differential charging for VoIP (voice over Internet) is required to eliminate the arbitrage which leads to subsidisation of rich data customers using smart phones by the customers using voice through ordinary feature phone,” Airtel said.
The telecom major also called to bring Internet based voice and messaging provider, called over-the-top (OTT) players, under ambit of same rules which are imposed on operators in the country.
Echoing views, Vodafone said, “There is a need to ensure regulation is fit for the Digital Age and introduce a concept of regulatory neutrality, i.e. the same services, same customer protection, whether offered by an OTT communication player or a TSP (telecom service provider).”
State-run operator BSNL too favoured differential pricing of data for accessing websites, applications or platforms.
Industry chamber Assocham, ACTO, global telecom body GSMA also favoured allowing of differential pricing for data.
The debate which at some point became Facebook’s Free Basics versus net neutrality saw mixed reaction from public.
“Seeking discriminatory data plans is it self a privilege wanted by the data companies. Now free basics by facebook is also on its way to ensure that net neutrality becomes a history in India. As they do not promise it to be unbiased in future, they reserve the right to reject a website or a consumer,” an individual Amritesh Praksh Dixit said.
In support of Free Basics, an individual Devi Dileep said “In my opinion,Net Neutrality must be retained.But,at the same time let us not completely discard FreeBasics. Government could work out a modified model with Facebook.Let them give the FreeBasics on a trial basis.”
However, as per initial comments released by Trai, individuals were against regulator permitting different pricing of data or Internet.