Price fight: Telecom Commission adopts TRAI plan on net neutrality

The Telecom Commission, the highest policymaking body in the department of telecommunications (DoT), approved the recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) with regard to net neutrality. With this, telecom operators who were constrained due to the regulator’s differential pricing regulation will get some leeway in pricing their value-added services in three areas — specialized services, content delivery networks and traffic management.

The move aims to ensure that all web traffic is treated fairly and that internet service providers won’t block, throttle, or favor any content or services (with a few reasonable exceptions).

The rules:

As per the net neutrality rules in India, mobile operators, internet providers and social-media and internet companies cannot engage in, or seek, preferential treatment as there will now be prohibition on any kind of interference in the treatment of content, including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting differential speeds or treatment to any content.

Any efforts to create zero-rated platforms have now been blocked. Zero-rated platforms, which had earlier been tried (by companies such as Airtel and Facebook) but barred, offer only a certain category of services and websites as free, thus creating paid layers and stifling competition and innovation.

Under net neutrality, online access is unrestricted and non-discriminatory. The only exceptions are new and emerging services such as autonomous driving, telemedicine or remote-diagnostic services, which may require prioritized internet lanes and faster-than-normal speeds. A committee will look into the possible exceptions for “critical services” which will also be defined keeping in view the basic tenets of net neutrality.

It’s a huge win for those who favor free and fair internet access in the country. It also prevents programs like Facebook’s Free Basics, which granted free access to mobile sites on the zero-rated platform that were allowed in by the company.

The government’s decision is being seen as progressive as it will not allow any mobile operator, internet service provider or online/social media giant to create monopolies on the internet by getting specialized treatment by paying for it. The rules of equal access will be maintained and no company can buy special treatment for itself or its services.

Net neutrality has become a contentious issue across the world as social media giants and mobile and internet providers seek greater control on delivery of content and services to customers. It is feared that handing out greater and unchecked control to them will lead to monopolies and situations of paid prioritization, both of which will stifle the start-up culture and new innovations.

As the internet economy gains in size and influence across the world, there have been increasing concerns in relation to the potential for discriminatory treatment of internet traffic by the entities that control access to the internet.

All those who believe in a fair marketplace should welcome the reiteration that the principles of net neutrality will be upheld in India. This will ensure that those who control the pipes through which data flows – between providers and consumers of content – cannot favor some providers over others.

The government now needs to ensure there are no loopholes that could result in an uneven playing field – for instance, companies that own both broadbands and produce content should not be allowed to distribute their content free, by not charging for the data. Conversely, other content providers should have the same free access to distribution.

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