NEW DELHI: India’s telecom regulator Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) on Tuesday issued its recommendations on
. Here are the key takeaways and why it matters.
The regulator said internet service providers should not engage in any discriminatory treatment of content, which basically translates to the Trai seeking to bar any practice where selected content is blocked, degraded, slowed down or granted preferential speeds.
Licensees or service providers should be prohibited from entering into any arrangement that has the effect of discriminatory treatment of content, the regulator said in its recommendations.
Trai however, said, “specialised services” should be kept out of the ambit of net neutrality. “Services which may be construed to be “specialised services” on account of requiring a specific level of quality should perhaps not be captured within the scope of this provision as a “non-neutral” treatment may inherently be required for such services,” it said.
But, such a rule should also not restrict any developments that improve the overall quality and capacity of the Internet or hinder the possibility of emergence of new categories of services or innovative ways of delivering existing services, Trai clarified.
The regulator said it’s acceptable to allow flexibility to carry out reasonable traffic management, “which is necessary for the delivery of an acceptable level of quality of services”. What this means is telcos and service providers may be able to provide ‘fast lanes’ for some content based on traffic behaviour. “If it is done only to maintain network integrity at times of extreme congestion it won’t be problematic, but if it is an invasive measure to implement differentiated and preferred access to different categories of content then it will undermine net neutrality,” says free internet activist body Internet Freedom Foundation’s co-founder Apar Gupta, who is also a Supreme Court lawyer.
Telecom operators have long argued that they should not be regulated or held accountable for “reasonably” managing internet traffic.They have also lobbied for permission to enter into financial agreements with digital content companies to advantage their content.
In an interview to this writer earlier in the year lobby group Cellular Operators Association of India’s (COAI) director general Rajan S Mathews had said that network management in a country of 1.3 billion people is essential because spectrum is limited. Mobile service providers such as Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular are broadly banded under COAI.
COAI says that 18-20 MHz is the average spectrum that most telcos get, but to cater to a country like India, telcos need around 60 MHz. “I am responsible for ensuring that the health and quality with QoS and all of that is maintained so I will have to play traffic cop otherwise there is chaos,” Mathews had said in January.
However, free internet activists such IFF, oppose ‘traffic management’ as being against the ethos of net neutrality. “Even though the overall framing of the recommendations is positive the absence of proper definition of traffic management and also the blocking power being extended in pursuance of international treaties is problematic, said IFF’s Gupta. On blocking of certain content which may be deemed ‘unlawful’, action taken in pursuance of any international treaty must be regarded as a valid exemption, the Trai said.
The 52-page recommendation that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) will now take up has also suggested that a multi-stakeholder body be set up for policing compliance and violations.
Back in February last year, the Trai had ruled that no service provider would be allowed to offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content, thus, banning Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero.
Both Free Basics and Airtel Zero let users access certain apps and websites for free (without being charged for the data used) Airtel’s model was to charge companies that wanted to be part of the ‘Zero’ universe. As far as Free Basics was concerned, data was subsidised by Facebook through a partnership with a telco. So any app or service provider could apply to be part of Free Basics, provided they adhered to a set of rules set by the social networking giant.
Tuesday’s Trai papers come at a rather crucial time, just after the US regulator, Federal Communications Commission said that it plans to roll back the net neutrality rules that were adopted in US in 2015. This will go to a vote next month. Regulators across the world take cues from its American counterpart.