Mobile operators are set to oppose any blanket ban on differential data tariff offered by them through select tie-ups with content providers. FE has learnt that the operators are going to oppose any such move in their responses to the consultation paper on the subject, the last date for which has now been extended till January 7 by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. The operators are going to maintain that such pricing was not discriminatory and should be allowed to continue. The core basis for their opposition to prohibiting such tariff packages would be that flexibility in setting tariff should be allowed. However, if the regulator has any concern regarding any aspect, there can be regulation regarding it.
To bolster their stand, they are going to refer to the past position the regulator has taken on issues like on-net and off-net calls and lifetime validity scheme. “In both these cases, the regulator had initially termed such move by the industry as discriminatory but upon examining them via a consultative process did not find any such thing. The result was that both the tariffs were allowed with some bit of regulation,” an industry source told FE.
The other aspect which the operators are going to highlight is that differential data tariff is allowed in several other countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Bangladesh and Thailand. In fact, Singapore’s largest mobile operator SingTel offers a data package for Facebook, which does not allow voice and video calling. For the latter the charges are higher. Similarly, in Hong Kong, operators provide a dual WhatsApp tariff — $8 for messaging and $18 for voice over internet protocol calls.
Industry sources said they are going to forcefully argue that prohibiting differential data tariff is akin to having a standard voice call rate. “Had that been the case with voice calls, today local call rates would have been higher than 50-60 paise a minute,” said an industry executive.
In its 11-page consultation paper released on December 9, Trai had said that the perceived aim of such differential data packages, which provide free or discounted access to certain internet services, is to widen the internet user base in the country.
As such it has offered two models, distinct from the ones practised currently by delinking free internet access from specific content. The first model it has suggested is that operators can provide initial data consumption for free, without limiting it to any particular content.
This means free or discounted browsing for a specified time, or giving certain amount of data free daily irrespective of which sites are surfed. The second model proposes that content providers reimburse the cost of browsing or download to the customers directly irrespective of which mobile operator they have used to visit the website.
In response to these two models suggested by the regulator, the industry is going to say that one where content providers directly reimburse the consumers for visiting their site only helps those who are connected, it does not bring the unconnected on to the net. With regard to operators providing limited free data to consumers to visit whatever site they wish to, the response is going to be: Who will bear the cost? “There’s no such thing as free data.
Somewhere, someone bears the cost. Through schemes like zero rating the consumers benefit but the telcos also don’t lose and even content providers get business, so the model ensures that no party loses,” an industry executive said.
On Thursday, Trai chairman RS Sharma said that the authority has so far received about 18.27 lakh responses, of which 14.3 lakh have supported differential data tariff by endorsing Facebook’s Free Basics. However, Sharma said these comments did not answer the questions asked by the regulator. As such, he said, the authority will write back to these people to answer specific questions asked by it in the consultation paper.
Trai has also received 3.81 lakh comments from people in support of net neutrality, which means banning offerings like Free Basics. Sharma said these comments are also in a template form, but the template answers all the questions with minor variations so there was no need to write back to them.
The regulator has so far received around 12,000 messages other than template-based comments. Mobile operators are one of the most significant stakeholders in the consultation process and are likely to submit their responses by January 7 after which the regulator will put up all the responses on its website.
What the operators will highlight
* Differential data tariff allowed in countries like Singa-pore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Bangladesh and Thailand
* SingTel in Singapore offers different data packs for surfing Facebook and for voice and video calls
* In Hong Kong, WhatsApp messaging data pack is for $8 while that for VoIP is for $18
* In the past, Trai did not ban off-net, on-net calls and lifetime validity scheme, just regulated it