The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India may find it difficult to frame clear-cut guidelines on differential data tariff given the diverse responses received at the open house on the subject on Thursday. While mobile operators and social networking sites such as Facebook argued in favour of differential tariffs, some social media organisations opposed them.
Telcos including Bharti, Vodafone, Idea and Reliance Communications batted for differential data tariffs, saying in their absence innovation would be stifled; they also wanted such tariff packages be left unregulated.
On the other hand, social media organisations like the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) argued that if mobile operators were allowed to offer differential data tariff it would mean end of equal access to the internet and thus the end of innovation.
“If we have only one type of tariff… it will stifle innovation. None of the telcos will develop different types of network if they are not allowed to go ahead with differential pricing of data services…” the Bharti Airtel representative observed, adding the existing regulations were working well and consequently, there was no real need for new regulation for data services.
The Anil Ambani-led Reliance Communications (RCom) was of the view that tariff forbearance has always been advantageous for consumers. Its representative claimed forbearance on tariff had resulted in an exponential jump in number of mobile phone users as voice tariffs had come down.
“The market becomes more dynamic and corrections takes place automatically since the market is competitive. There is nothing that will lead to the dominance of telcos as feared by those opposing differential pricing,” the RCom executive said.
Those opposing these voices said access to the internet should be full and free and that there should be no restrictions. Users, they felt, should not be discriminated against and neither should the network be throttled.
Representatives of IAMAI, however, felt that if differential pricing for data services was allowed, smaller players might be left out and larger players alone would be able to comply with the new norms.
Trai had put out a consultation paper on the subject seeking responses from all stakeholders and followed it up with an open house session to enable it to frame rules. The regulator expects to usher in regulations by the end of the month.
Trai has said 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 de-linking 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.
Nikhil Pahwa, founder of medianama.com, said, “Net neutrality means that the access service provider doesn’t distinguish between creator and consumer by manipulating speed, cost or availability based on the source or type of access. This ensures that billions of blogs, code repositories and sources of knowledge can be created by contributions from not just businesses but also consumers themselves.”
Industry sources said that with no meeting ground between the two sides, it would become difficult for the regulator to come out with any kind of regulation that either allows differential tariff to stay as it is currently or ban it altogether. “It remains to be seen how the regulator reconciles the views of the two sides and comes out with a balanced regulation,” said an industry executive.
Trai’s consultation paper on the subject and eventually any regulation will come at a time when the mobile operators are competing hard to woo consumers by offering special 4G plans as they launch such services through select tie-ups with content providers. The regulator’s consultation paper seems to be clearly calling services like Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero as discriminatory, non-competitive and thwarting innovation. It even disapproves of packages launched by operators as part of their 4G offering, which enables consumers to download certain movies or applications free of charge.
The consultation paper has been issued under Telecommunication Tariff Order, which means that since the regulator is supreme in tariff matters and since this does not fall in the policy domain, after the consultative process, it will issue regulations directly rather than sending a set of recommendations to the government for final decision.