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Responses to Trai’s consultation paper on free data contain some good suggestions

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 17, 2016 03:05 AM
Trai has announced that it will come up with a final consultation paper on ‘Free Data’, and also a pre-consultation paper on Net Neutrality by the end of this month.
Responses to Trai’s consultation paper on free data contain some good suggestions

The Free Software Movement of Karnataka protesting Net Neutrality violations

The blog post by Asheeta Regidi was published by FirstPost's Tech 2 on August 15, 2016.

The pre-consultation paper on Free Data (the Consultation Paper), which was issued in May 2016, asked for options where free data could be provided for accessing certain websites or apps without violating the Discriminatory Tariff Regulations issued earlier in February. The objective of the paper is to maximise internet penetration, and make internet available even to the poorest.

The models suggested in the Consultation Paper are a reward of free data for certain internet uses, zero data charges for accessing certain content, and refunding data charges in a manner similar to refund of LPG subsidies. These models are very similar to plans like Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero, which were banned by the Discriminatory Tariff Regulations.

While it is clear that Trai has no intention of withdrawing the Discriminatory Tariff Regulations, the Consultation Paper does appear to open up the doors to net neutrality violations again. Here’s a look at the comments and counter-comments that have come in response to this paper.

A motorist rides past a hoarding advertising Facebook's Free Basics. Image: Reuters

A motorist rides past a hoarding advertising Facebook’s Free Basics. Image: Reuters

Large TSPs and TSP associations want content-based free data schemes
The response of large TSPs like Vodafone, Idea and so on are quite predictable. They, alongwith most of the TSP associations such as ACTO, COAI and AUSPI, are in support of the idea of free access to certain sites. They, in fact, point out the similarities between the proposed models and the similar models brought out by them, such as Airtel’s One Touch Internet and Reliance’s Facebook Tap. They have also asked for a withdrawal of the Discriminatory Tariff Regulations, on the grounds that they hamper the innovation and forbearance capabilities of the TSPs.

They do, however, take issue with the fact that a TSP agnostic platform, or a platform which is completely independent of the TSPs, is to be given the power to decide how the lower prices or discounts are to be provided. They allege that there is nothing to prevent such a platform from acting as a gatekeeper in itself. They argue that TSPs are in a better position to perform this function, since they are subject to strict regulatory and licensing requirements from Trai.

Employees at an outsourcing centre in Bengaluru Image: Reuters
Employees at an outsourcing centre in Bengaluru Image: Reuters

Smaller TSPs and other companies fear net neutrality violations
Smaller TSPs like Atria, Citicom and MTS are against content based free data proposal, mostly on the grounds that the models suggested violate net neutrality. They point out that allowing content based free data in any form will give an unfair advantage to large TSPs and content providers. Smaller companies and start-ups will be left in the lurch since they will not have the financial capabilities to effectively compete with such schemes. These entities also share the fear of the TSPs that there is nothing to stop a TSP agnostic platform from also acting as a gatekeeper.

Commuters with their smartphones in a Mumbai local. Image: Reuters
Commuters with their smartphones in a Mumbai local. Image: Reuters

Some alternative suggestions for free data schemes which do not violate net neutrality
The approach suggested by Trai will, to a large extent, only benefit existing users of the internet, since a basic internet access of some sort is required before the users can enjoy the benefits of a rewards or a refund. Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), in its comments, points to research that found that only 12 percent of the users of zero rating services abroad (no data charges for certain websites), started using it because of the zero rating. Clearly, these schemes are not achieving the objective of increasing internet usage, and an alternative solution is required.

Many of the responses came up with alternative suggestions for free data schemes which can increase internet usage without violating net neutrality. Some of these suggestions are listed below:

  • The Digital Empowerment Foundation suggests the provision of free data quotas or packs, which would give a limited amount of data free of charge to all consumers. Any data usage above the basic pack will be charged at normal rates. It also suggests making such packs mandatory as a part of the TSP licensing terms or alternatively subsidising the cost of these packs through other benefits to the TSPs.
  • MTS suggests that content providers be allowed free internet access for a limited time or quantity, such as 30 minutes per day, or 100MB per day, to certain groups, like low income groups.
  • Mozilla and SFLC suggest the ‘equal rating’ system, where a small amount of data per day is made available free of charge to all internet users, over and above whatever other packs they may have purchased.
  • The Centre for Internet and Society suggests that the government allow TSPs to provide free internet to all, at a lower speed, and in return exempt the TSPs from the USO contributions in their license fees. This will ensure free data to all without differentiating based on content.
  • SFLC also suggests an increase in free public Wi-Fi hotspots, like the kind being made available in Indian railway stations, to increase internet accessibility without content-based discrimination.
  • MTNL suggests that if content-based free data is to be allowed, the government should determine what constitutes the basic services to be allowed for free, such as railway booking services, and not leave this to the understanding of the TSPs.
  • MTS also suggests that content providers be allowed to give data-based rewards for certain activity, such as watching associated advertisements.
  • Atria suggests that if free data is to be allowed, first establish a negative list of what cannot be done, such as no throttling of speeds.
Anonymous protests against Internet laws in Mumbai. Image: Reuters
Anonymous protests against Internet laws in Mumbai. Image: Reuters

First establish ground rules of net neturality
One common aspect of most of the comments to the Consultation Paper was the confusion regarding Trai’s stance on net neutrality. Many entities, including the large TSPs, pointed out the contradiction between this Consultation Paper and the Discriminatory Tariff Regulations.

This paper gives the impression that the Discriminatory Tariff Regulations were issued not to prevent content based discrimination, but to prevent telecom service providers from becoming ‘gatekeepers’. In reality, that is not the main fear of the people, but the fear that net neutrality will be affected. The culprits might be anyone, whether it is the TSP, the content provider or the TSP agnostic platform suggested by Trai. It needs to modify its approach, and first lay down the fundamental rules on net neutrality. Any other regulations must first comply with these rules.

While the motives of Trai are laudible, it is hoped that Trai will look into the several suggestions made that will achieve the dual targets of maximum internet penetration as well as securing net neutrality.