That net neutrality is a complex issue is brought out not just by Trai’s pre-consultation paper on it saying ‘there are several definitions of Net Neutrality’, but by the fact there are three separate consultations Trai is conducting on it—a fourth, on differential pricing of data, is over and a ruling already made on it. While Trai’s pre-consultation on net neutrality is to be commended for bringing on board all important issues, what is unfortunate is that while it wants a consultation on ‘what should be regarded as the core principles of net neutrality in the Indian context’ and ‘what are the reasonable traffic management principles … and in what manner could these be misused’, Trai has already banned differential pricing of data on grounds of net neutrality. As a result of this, for instance, Facebook’s Free Basics has already stopped in India. And while Trai’s differential data pricing order created another boondoggle by bringing in the artificial construct of an ‘intranet’ where the ban would not apply, it has yet to rule on Bharti Airtel’s plan based on using the intranet to store movies/serials/music.
Much the same happened in the case of the Trai’s order on call drops, for which it was pulled up by the Supreme Court. In that case, Trai had passed its order asking telcos to pay a fine of R1 per dropped call and, within a few months of this, it came out with a technical paper explaining the reasons for call drops. Given this unfortunate turn of events, the regulator would do well to withdraw the differential pricing order and subsume all consultations into the latest one.
There are, of course, no easy solutions. All the countries Trai cites in its paper have a 2Mbps internet penetration of at least 70%, so hitting at the revenues of wireless telcos isn’t going to hurt as much as it will in India where under a tenth of the population has access to broadband internet—presumably that’s why Trai is asking for a net-neutrality definition ‘in the Indian context’. It would have helped if Trai recognised that net neutrality has only recently been introduced for wireless—that is under legal challenge in the US—and that there are technological reasons for why doing this is impossible. If lots of data is consumed—Trai says 74% of all internet traffic will be video by 2019, up from 46% in 2014—the only way good voice calls can be expected (think call drops) is by prioritising (voice) data which is prohibited under strict net neutrality. You could argue that reasonable traffic management can be allowed as part of net neutrality, but as Trai recognises, ‘there is a fine line’ between this and violating net neutrality principles.
Dealing with over-the-top (OTT) players like WhatsApp and Skype isn’t going to be easy either since they hog bandwidth which telcos are spending lakhs of crore to roll out; the issue of prioritisation also comes up again. Given the knotty nature of problems, Trai’s best bet is light regulation that allows telcos to work out individual deals with OTT and other players and examine different tariff plans only after complaints of abuse, and revisit this issue after India’s internet penetration is significantly higher. The alternative is to get stuck in disputes over its regulation as telcos take it to court—and with the uncertainty over net neutrality hanging over the heads, chances are few telcos will either bid for spectrum or roll out the internet in any serious fashion till this is sorted out. Neither of Trai’s goals, of consumer interest or investor confidence, are being served right now.