TRAI Takes Second Stab at Net Neutrality in New Consultation Paper

Whether the regulator is attempting a deeper look or trying to negate the support that was drummed up for net neutrality earlier this year, it desperately needs to be more open and forthcoming about its consultation process.

The Heart of the Internet: Fiber optic switches that can each handle up to 60GBs. Photo: Shawn Harquail

The Heart of the Internet: Fiber optic switches that can each handle up to 60GBs. Photo: Shawn Harquail

Chennai: In a surprising turn of events, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), has issued yet another consultation paper on net neutrality, a little over eight months after it first called for public comments and discussion on the subject.

Released on Wednesday, this second paper is much shorter than the first and appears to specifically focus on differential pricing for data services. Differential pricing by telecom service providers (TSPs) – a hotly debated topic that includes the controversial practice of zero-rating – was a core issue of the ‘Save the Internet’ movement that swept India earlier this year.

According to the TRAI paper, concerned stakeholders are requested to furnish their written comments to the new paper by December 30, 2015. The deadline for counter-comments will be January 7, 2016.

The four questions that TRAI asks this time around were briefly touched upon in its previous paper but appear to now be phrased after taking into account the backlash to various initiatives such as Facebook’s project. The questions are:

TRAI questions

Portions of the new paper appear to speak directly to the concerns of the Save the Internet movement. For example, Point 18 of the paper addresses the idea of non-discriminatory zero-rating services and points out: “The laudable goal of providing the benefits of internet access to those without it must not be forgotten while considering these schemes. Given the concerns outlined above, it is worthwhile considering whether there are any viable alternative models that can serve this goal.” The paper goes on to list several of these alternative models including reimbursement of data costs through advertisements and even direct money transfers for Internet access.

These new questions that TRAI poses are, therefore, well thought-out and appear to directly address the issue of providing free Internet access to India’s rural citizens. As pointed out above, Questions 14 and 15 of TRAI’s earlier paper also touched on the topic of differential pricing, albeit in a more simplified, straightforward context that lacked nuance.

The overall language of the report reads more reasonable than the regulator’s earlier paper and appears to directly consider the needs of India’s rural population and the risks they may face while accessing the Internet for free.

One point specifically notes how even so-called free Internet initiatives can lead to users being unwittingly charged after leaving a particular zero-rated walled garden. “The magnitude of price differential is huge and can have dangerous implications for users of such facilities which are claimed to be free, if not conveyed to the consumer transparently and effectively,” the report says.

On the surface, therefore, TRAI’s decision to delve into more detail with regard to differential pricing by TSPs is welcome;  one that it likely should have done eight months ago.

However, where there is cause for concern is that the regulatory process surrounding net neutrality and the general regulation of the Indian Internet industry has been wonky and at times deeply confusing.

For instance, before this new paper, there were three official initiatives that addressed net neutrality in India and the regulation of online applications: the TRAI had issued a consultation paper in March, the Department of Telecommunications had come out with a report in July, and in May a Parliamentary Committee was constituted to look into issues of net net neutrality.  How is the thinking behind these separate processes supposed to converge and how can concerned citizens be sure that their interests are represented at each of them?

What makes matters worse is that TRAI has not made clear whether the new consultation paper is an attempt at more clearly understanding the issues that came about during its first paper or whether it’s the start of a brand new consultation process. As matters stand, TRAI is currently dragging its feet and still hasn’t held the required open-house discussion on net neutrality that it should have after receiving counter-comments for the paper it issued in March.

Medianama’s Nikhil Pahwa (and potentially many others of the Save the Internet movement) worries that this round of consultation could be an attempt at negating the support that was drummed up in favour of net neutrality earlier this year. If this turns out to be true, and the comments received in the earlier consultation process are ignored, it would be deplorable.

What is more likely, however, is that TRAI is simply attempting to take a deeper look at the subject. In any case, the regulator desperately needs to be more open and forthcoming about its consultation process regarding net neutrality; which is rather ironical considering the subject matter that it is currently mulling over.

Companies such as Facebook and Google, Reliance and Airtel, are already deciding ground-realities and shaping the means through which India accesses the Internet. While a hasty and sloppy regulatory process will benefit no one, speed and transparency are also crucial.

  • Sayon Mallick

    Not this again. What is Trai upto this time?