TRAI

The new consultation paper on Net Neutrality issued by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India today essentially revisits models that it has already ruled on, including Gigato, Airtel Zero and FreeBasics, as well as what Google was allegedly planning to launch by allowing app developers to make access to their app free. The paper (download) says:

“…there is a need to have some TSP (Telecom operator) agnostic platform which can facilitate app developer to promote their website by providing some incentive to user for making their website popular. Further, to the extent that affordability of access is noted to be a cause for exclusion, it is not clear as to how the same users will be in a position to migrate to the open internet if they do not have the resources to do so in the first place. Therefore, there is a need to enable smaller entrepreneurs to flourish without permitting gate keeping function in the hands of the TSPs and also to give the consumers more choices for accessing the Internet.”

“The model should facilitate the un-connected and under-connected consumer to become better connected and should not allow any TSP or large company playing a gatekeeper or biased role. The model should use the
principles of open, transparent and equal access to consumer services by all consumers and all businesses.”

The models posed by the regulator:

1. The data-cashback model: A telecom operator agnostic platform which rewards consumers with recharge for data usage or voice usage, on the basis of some activity from them. Examples of such platforms: Gigato, mCent, Taskbucks, Ladoo, EarnTalktime, Pokkt and others. Another example is platforms which allow websites to directly offer rewards for certain activities “like paying electricity bill on time or checking out of the hotel on time etc.”

MediaNama’s take: It is the same as providing data as a reward for certain activities, and has the same impact as buying a recharge pack from the market, and giving the user data as a reward. This model does not dictate what users can use their data for, and should be fine.

2. The like-Airtel-Zero model: A recharge API there ‘could be an equivalent “don’t charge” or toll free API’, which allows free access to certain websites and applications. This helps the businesses make their service easily accessible without impacting the mobile bill of the consumers. In this model, the TSP does not act as a gatekeeper and plays a passive role. The platform owner has a business interest to allow any and every content provider making the model neutral.

MediaNama’s take: This is the exact same model as Airtel Zero, just being made to look sanitized because a third party is doing it, and not a telecom operator like Airtel. No surprise that the “Toll free” phrase, used so often by telecom operators, finds its way here. This is a differential pricing model, and would not conform to the guidelines explicitly laid out by the TRAI in its differential pricing regulation, because even if a telecom operator isn’t doing this directly, it has the exact same impact. So instead of Airtel Zero Rating particular websites, it could just sell bulk data to a sister concern like Bharti Softbank, and allow it to zero rate specific websites. This should not be allowed. We’d explained issues with Airtel Zero here:

The Airtel Zero idea: Splitting India’s Internet into many Internets

3. The like-FreeBasics model: The direct money transfer approach: a telecom operator agnostic platform can measure the real time data consumption and tariff of a particular user, and reimburse the actual amount incurred by the user, as a recharge for data or voice.

MediaNama’s take: This is tricky, because it is monitoring website usage, checking how much data of a particular website is used, and giving money or cash for the exact same usage. In our opinion, this would have the exact same impact as making access to a particular website free: that the user will not be charged for using that particular site. This is zero rating, and shouldn’t be allowed. This is like Free Basics.

Questions that the TRAI has asked

Question 1: Is there a need to have TSP agnostic platform to provide free data or suitable reimbursement to users, without violating the principles of Differential Pricing for Data laid down in TRAI Regulation? Please suggest the most suitable model to achieve the objective.
Question 2: Whether such platforms need to be regulated by the TRAI or market be allowed to develop these platforms?
Question 3: Whether free data or suitable reimbursement to users should be limited to mobile data users only or could it be extended through technical means to subscribers of fixed line broadband or leased line?
Question 4: Any other issue related to the matter of Consultation.

Please send your responses to the TRAI by 16th June 2016, to broadbandtrai@gmail.com

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Disclosure: I’m a co-founder of the SaveTheInternet.in coalition on Net Neutrality in India, and MediaNama has taken a strong position on Net Neutrality.