Telecom operators and internet firms have drawn battle lines over who should be held accountable in case a consumer faces problem or restriction in accessing content or services over the internet. While echoing their demand for imposing ‘same service, same rules’ on apps like Whatsapp and Hike, the telecom operators have suggested that sector regulator Trai should consider bringing mobile phone companies, browser and everyone involved in the internet ecosystem within the ambit of the net neutrality rules.
However, the internet firms have said that net neutrality rules should focus only the service providers. Bharti Airtel, in its comment on net neutrality consultation paper floated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) said that the country “needs not only Net Neutrality, but also ‘Net Equality’.” “…the principles of net neutrality should be applicable to all Telecom Service Providers (TSPs), content providers, handset manufacturers and other stakeholders operating within the Internet ecosystem. The business practices of all stakeholders should be fair, transparent and non-discriminatory,” Airtel said.
The telecom major said that over-the-top (OTT) communication services such as voice and messaging, provided by various players, are direct substitutes for the services offered by the telecom operators. It said that net neutrality committee at Department of Telecom has suggested that the OTT service providers ought to be subject to the same rules and regulations regarding lawful interception, national security, payment of regulatory levies and taxes, data privacy, customer protection, etc. “However, the current consultation paper does not delve into this important aspect. We believe that Trai should address this issue while framing any opinion on net neutrality,” Airtel said.
Vodafone said that the net neutrality requirements have traditionally been applied only to telecom operators, while other providers in the internet value chain can also differentiate in terms of quality and service. “Trai should ensure that there is level playing field amongst all components of the Internet eco-system,” Vodafone said. Net neutrality debate in India sparked off after Airtel in December 2014 announced plan to charge data consumed for making internet based calls at base rate.
The base rate of 2G mobile internet were over 500 times high at Rs 10,000 per GB approximately compared to around Rs 175-180 that companies were charging for 1 GB on the same network under a scheme. The debate further heated up after Airtel and social media firm Facebook launched free internet platforms. These platforms were banned by Trai in February 2016. “Enforcement of NN (net neutrality) rules by Trai rules are expected to focus on telecom service providers and internet service providers and internet users, and expanding the scope is not advisable. Any violation beyond this should go to other regulator as per law,” IT industry body Nasscom said.
It said that with increasing user requirements of better services, the product developers and service providers would be under constant pressure to improve performance otherwise they would be weeded out by market dynamics. “Therefore, collaborative standards based approach should be adopted. These standards should be global and encourage interoperability for maximum ease of adoption,” Nasscom said.
Industry body IAMAI, which represents companies like Google and Facebook said that the device, browser, operating system being used come under the classification of software and internet services and may even qualify under the nomenclature, ‘OTT services’ as used by the Trai in the past, but is outside the the purview of the consultation paper on net neutrality. Airtel said that the industry is laden with huge debt exceeding Rs 4.2 lakh crore, and will require investments of more than Rs 5 lakh crore in the coming years to accomplish the government’s vision.
It said that the Indian telecom sector is subjected to one of the highest taxes and levies in the world. “It is making a Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) of 1 per cent, which is an unsustainable situation. So, without critical broadband infrastructure and necessary investments in place, the vision of Digital India and Broadband for All will be nearly impossible to achieve,” Airtel said.
However, both telecom operators and internet firms are on the same page on that there should no blocking of any content, applications, services or throttling of lawful Internet based on commercial arrangements unless directed under the law.