Recently, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) issued a consultation paper on free internet . The paper seeks to bring about the second aspect of the net neutrality issue by acknowledging the requirement of allowing free access to certain content within the four corners of non-discriminatory tariff.
The past year has witnessed intense debate surrounding net neutrality in India. Trai, being the nodal agency regarding data services, came out with a discussion paper in the latter half of last year, which culminated in the issuance of the ‘Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations’ on February 8.
The principle behind the February 8 regulations is to ensure access to the whole of the internet. Further, the regulations intend to ensure net neutrality and to stop the zero-rating/ discounted access to websites based on the content the subscriber is accessing; for example, they prohibit telcos from charging zero or discounted rate from the subscribers for accessing a particular social media website/ application, but at the same time charging the regular cost for access to a similar website/application.
By enforcing these regulations, Trai, in its view, thought that it had put an end to the non-discriminatory pricing debate (and hence the net neutrality debate!) by prohibiting telecom service providers from charging differential prices from different customers for accessing websites/ contents. However, what does and what does not amount to differential pricing has not been clearly enunciated in the these regulations. Moreover, the wording of the regulations leaves a lot of room for interpretation on differential pricing and one could think that Trai’s rationale behind net neutrality does not go hand in hand with them.
As evident from the paper, Trai acknowledges that through the regulations, it has created a regime whereby net neutrality is made sacrosanct. However, on the other hand it has admitted that there exists a possibility of creating an alternative regime of providing free internet access to customers within the boundaries of non-discriminatory tariff. Therefore, it seems that we are back to square one on the net neutrality issue.
However, Trai, through the consultation paper, has expressed its sincere intent to ensure that customers are encouraged to use internet by enabling the telecom service providers to incentivise them, by being within the boundaries of non-discriminatory tariff. In order to ensure this, the paper has rightly put forth three main modes of providing incentives to customers: (a) ‘toll-free model’, whereby the customers can browse certain websites or use certain apps for free; (b) ‘reimbursement model’, whereby the customers pay upfront for the data usage and are subsequently reimbursed for such usage by the telecom service provider; and (c) ‘rewards model’, whereby customers use applications/ websites that reward them with incentives such as recharge for data or voice usage.
But sticking to any one of the aforementioned modes will not be the solution. Further, the incentives to be made available to prepaid customers will be different from that of the postpaid customers. Therefore, at best, the telecom service providers should be given a free run to incentivise their customers through any of the above mentioned modes or a combination of such modes. However, in order to ensure compliance with the letter as well as the spirit of the net neutrality issue/non-discriminatory pricing issue, Trai may impose certain limitations on the incentives that the telcos could provide to their customers, such as maximum permissible free data or maximum number of free websites, etc.
Considering that the internet space is expanding leaps and bounds with new innovations taking place day in and day out, it becomes crucial for the people of India to be at the center stage of this. With the government pushing forth with its Digital India campaign, aiming to make internet reachable to the maximum number of citizens, it becomes essential that adequate platforms are created whereby citizens, especially in rural areas, are able to get the necessary incentives to use the internet. In this regard, permitting telecom service providers to incentivise customers by providing certain free data servuces is definitely a step in the right direction.
(With contribution from CV Srikant, associate, J Sagar Associates)
The author is a partner, J Sagar Associates, Advocates and Solicitors
Views are personal