Following Airtel’s violation of Net Neutrality principles, Rahul Khullar, the TRAI Chairman, while acknowledging that Airtel has violated Net Neutrality, made some worrying statements to the Financial Express, and left me wondering about the point of making a case before an already-prejudiced adjudicator, and whether the consultation will end up being a farce to justify a decision already taken by the TRAI.

To the Financial Express, Khullar said:

‘“If the telecom players fall under a set of rules, then should not the OTT players be also brought under some kind of rules? Otherwise there would be a non-level playing field,” he said.’

Pointing out the ways OTT players could be brought under regulation, Khullar said that there could be licensing norms for them also wherein they have to pay licence fees to the government on a revenue-share basis. The other option, which is simpler, is that a termination charge is put on calls originating from Viber or Skype kind of services.’

Hear the interview on CNBC Awaaz, here, as well. While Khullar explains the case for bringing OTT applications (which, according to telecom operators, includes Social Networking, Instant Messaging (IM), Applications (Apps),VoIP, Cloud Services, Internet Television, IPTV, Machine to Machine communications), arguing about a level playing field, where is he explaining the consumer point of view, or the Internet industry point of view? If he has to present a case (he shouldn’t), shouldn’t he present cases from all three sides, to the audience, as a neutral, unbiased adjudicator? Instead, while he says Airtel’s actions violate net neutrality, he clarifies that it isn’t illegal for Airtel to do so, and mentions the need for a level playing field. Where is the consumer interest perspective?

Frankly, the only level playing field needed is so that Airtel, which runs Wynk, doesn’t use its role as an access service provider to make competitors like Saavn and Gaana more expensive. Remember that Airtel also runs Airtel Talk, a VoIP service. Will VoIP on Skype be made more expensive than on Airtel Talk?

So, I’m left wondering whether the TRAI has already made up its mind, wherein a violation of net neutrality will be legitimized, and services like instant messaging, social networking and VoIP will be carved out for telecom operators to charge extra for, and we will be charged not just for how much of the Internet we use, but also how we use it.

Also read: Net Neutrality, a simple explanation.

The telecom lobby has been working on the TRAI

Here’s the problem: the telecom lobby has been “working” on the TRAI on this issue for a very long time.The COAI, a telecom lobbying body, of which Facebook, incidentally, is a member, has sent a paper explaining its case to the TRAI. It has written to the TRAI asking for the regulation of Whatsapp, given that Whatsapp plans to launch voice services. To quote Khullar from a TRAI seminar on “Regulatory framework for OTT services (essentially regulation of the Internet):

“Over the last 6-8 months, a number of CEOs from the telecom sectors have come and spoken to me about the impending problem of OTT”

At one point, I remember getting a little worked up, and asking the TRAI executives at the seminar (Khullar had left by then) why it was even holding such a discussion – given the implications on net neutrality and freedom of speech – and they said it was merely to understand the issues. In all these years of attending TRAI open house discussions, I don’t remember a full day seminar merely to understand issues.

At the same seminar, Subho Ray, the President of the IAMAI, had mentioned at the seminar that the TRAI had not wished to get into issues of revenue share regarding Mobile VAS and Telecom Operators, but here they have held a seminar, and are now planning a consultation paper.

Consumer issues vs Telecom Industry issues

 

In 2014, the TRAI has failed to address key consumer issues:

1. Complaints about VAS fraud are back,

mobile-vas-wrongful-activation

2. The TRAI’s own SMS spam guidelines are being violated, with the transaction pipe being used for promotional messages:

 

However, from an industry perspective, the TRAI has come up with a great paper which recommends spectrum sharing, and possibly the most sensible recommendations around spectrum auctions that I have ever seen, which will greatly ensure the sustenance of the telecom industry. Powerful lobbies are powerful.

It’s time that the regulator took up consumer issues as well. The TRAI did some great work around both VAS fraud and SMS Spam in 2012-13, but in 2014, it failed telecom consumers.

Neutrality is critical

The TRAI needs to approach Net Neutrality without a prejudiced mind. Three core principles of neutrality:

  1. All sites must be equally accessible: ISPs and telecom operators shouldn’t block certain sites or apps just because they don’t pay them. No gateways should be created, in order to give preferential discovery to one site over another.
  2. All sites must be accessible at the same speed (at an ISP/telco level): This means no speeding up of certain sites because of business deals. More importantly, it means no slowing down some sites.
  3. The cost of access must be the same for all sites (per Kb/Mb or as per data plan): This means no “Zero Rating”. In countries like India, Net Neutrality is more about cost of access than speed of access: all lanes are slow.

It’s important for the growth of the Internet in India, and both consumers and the Internet industry (Digital India, anyone?) that neutrality be absolute, and the principle of the ‘calling party pays’ remain true for the Internet as well.