By K. Raveendran
The new guidelines issued by telecom regulator TRAI will give India a ‘democratic Internet’, creating a new model for other countries to follow in approaching the issue of Net Neutrality. This has been made possible by the bold stand adopted by the regulator, ignoring a concerted move by American giants to use the US Federal Communications Commission route to reopen the debate so as to restrict Net services in the interest of pushing their agenda of increased commercialisation.
TRAI has shown great courage to resist such tendencies and follow an independent course that is best suited for Indian priorities and outlook. Only last week, President Trump’s administration unveiled plans to rescind the US Net Neutrality rules of Barack Obama that treated internet service providers as public utilities. The move would surely give a sadistic pleasure to Trump in his drive to reverse everything Obama favoured, but it runs counter to the spirit of openness, the culture that made Internet and all progress associated with it possible.
Service providers consider Net Neutrality as a stumbling block in their effort to offset the losses they are perceived to suffer due to falling revenues from voice calls and SMS in the wake of VoIP-based instant messaging applications like Skype and WhatsApp becoming part of people’s daily lives.
The TRAI recommendations, which now require acceptance by the government and further follow-up actions, specifically prohibit Internet service providers from engaging in any form of discrimination or interference in the treatment of online content. The guidelines categorically state that Internet services in India should be governed by a “principle that restricts any form of discrimination or interference in the treatment of content, including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content”.
Indian civil society and industry activists describe the regulator’s recommendations as a victory for the end users. They even claim that the Net Neutrality principles as laid out by TRAI are the best attempted anywhere in the world.
The TRAI recommendations have a long way to go before they become law. But these will provide the guidance in making the law, laying out broad parameters in which the service providers (ISPs) and specialist content providers will operate in the country as well as how future policy formulations would impact the end users. The authority’s findings will now have to be hard-coded into telecom licencing provisions to give them teeth.
At the same time, the regulator has allowed service providers the freedom to introduce special pricing for value added services. TRAI has made it clear that its new recommendations will not apply to ‘specialised services’ by providers, which have been defined as ‘services other than Internet access services that are optimised for specific content, protocols or user equipment’. These could mostly be in the realm of future technologies such as Internet of Things, including artificial intelligence.
The TRAI move would make the data and internet market further favourable to the end user. The entry of Jio and its introduction of new market forces had turned the industry on its head, which until then had he providers behave like predators, charging customers arbitrarily as they behaved like the members of a cartel. Jio took the wind out of their sails.
With Modi’s digital India initiatives beginning to make headway and the country aspiring to become a $1 trillion digital economy, the new guidelines will further help in integrating larger sections of communities with net connectivity. Telcos have been complaining about low Internet and broadband penetration, in comparison to mobile phones, which puts additional burden on them while investing in innovative technologies.
But it is encouraging that while voice revenues have shown a decline, data revenues have shown significant growth and acceleration. This has helped the regulator take a tough stance against discriminatory pricing. The argument that instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp are eating into the basic revenue streams of telcos has been countered by the contention that the increase in revenue on account of higher data pack sales should offset the losses to a large extent.
The regulator has sought to strike a balance between the compulsions of service providers to regulate Internet speed in the name of traffic management and the need for ensuring Net Neutrality in the country. In this regard, TRAI has allowed ‘reasonable traffic management practices as necessary for delivering IP traffic on best efforts’. But it has warned of appropriate regulations from time to time on the scope and assessment of reasonable traffic management practices.
TRAI’s recommendations are the result of a long-drawn consultative process, which lasted nearly two years, during which all the stake holders, including the civil society activists, aggressively pushed their respective points of view. The consultations were divided into two stages, such as a pre-consultation phase and the comprehensive second phase, which ended in firming up the recommendations. (IPA Service)