TRAI Issues New Paper on Net Neutrality, Begins Final Consultations

The telecom regulator seeks to resolve the remaining aspects of net neutrality, namely speed and access.

R.S. Sharma. Credit: The Wire

TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma. Credit: The Wire

New Delhi: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), on Wednesday, kicked off a final round of consultation over various aspects of net neutrality that are yet to be addressed from a regulatory standpoint.

As The Wire had reported back in June 2015, while the issue of differential pricing of data (the Free Basics affair) was resolved by the telecom regulator, other aspects of net neutrality such as speed (should your internet service provider (ISP) be allowed to slow down/throttle your connection?) or access remain unresolved.

The telecom regulator had accordingly initiated a two-stage process to tackle these various issues in the form of a pre-consultation process – which was carried out towards the end of 2016 in order to gather initial feedback from the community – and now a full-blown consultation process.

TRAI’s latest consultation is quite self-aware. Throughout the paper, it re-affirms its non-discriminatory stance (by referring to its earlier order on differential pricing) and yet is acutely aware of the potential limitations of what it can and can’t do.

Consider for instance its section on “traffic management practices (TMPs)”. TMPs are steps taken by ISPs such as Airtel or BSNL to quite literally manage your internet traffic. They can be undertaken (sometimes) in a legitimate manner to deal with network overload but are more often used to interfere with your internet speed or access.

After running through a number of standard questions regarding the definition of “internet traffic”, TRAI asks: “Which of the following regulatory approaches would be preferable: (a) Defining what constitutes reasonable TMPs (the broad approach), or (b) Identifying a negative list of non reasonable TMPs (the narrow approach)”.

The next follow-up question goes into depth: “If a broad regulatory approach, as suggested in Q2, is to be followed: (a) What should be regarded as reasonable TMPs? (b) Whether and how should different categories of traffic be objectively defined from a technical point of view for this purpose?”

Blocking and throttling

On other issues, the telecom regulator also verges on the immensely practical. The section on what principles would be necessary for “ensuring non-discriminatory access to content on the Internet” is one such example.

Why should we care about blocking and throttling? As far back as 2012, there’s evidence to show that Indian ISPs often cut off access to torrent websites as a means of limiting bandwidth.

As was noted back in 2012,  throttling often forces “users to adopt for a more expensive Internet plan – not knowing that they are not receiving the bandwidth they paid for”. It’s also used as a tool of censorship in repressive governments across the world.

TRAI consequently asks:

How should the following practices be defined and what are the tests, thresholds and technical tools that can be adopted to detect their deployment (a) Blocking; (b) Throttling (for example, how can it be established that a particular application is being throttled?); (c) Preferential treatment (for example, how can it be established that preferential treatment is being provided to a particular application?)

Net neutrality body?

In its final section, TRAI ponders over the question of what body or institution would be best to implement a net neutrality framework in India; if such a framework is formulated.

“In keeping with such international precedents, a similar review and coordination process can be considered for India to provide inputs on the technical and operational aspects of implementation of any NN framework. This prompts the need to consider whether such a collaborative initiative would be suitable for India and what should be its design and structure,” the telecom regulator says.

The consultation questions it poses in this regard are as follows:

What would be the most effective legal/policy instrument for implementing a NN framework in India?  Which body should be responsible for monitoring and supervision? What actions should such body be empowered to take in case of any detected violation? If the Authority opts for QoS regulation on this subject, what should be the scope of such regulations?

The last date for public comments on the paper is February 15 and for counter-comments is February 28.