In an unexpected (and frankly inexplicable) move, the Indian telecom regulator TRAI has issued a consultation paper focused on differential pricing of data services, asking whether telecom operators should be allowed to charge differently for different websites, focused purely on the price discrimination aspect of Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality, as explained by Columbia Professor Vishal Misra, is the principle where telecom operators and ISPs do not give a competitive advantage to any specific application or website.
The deadline for submissions is 30th December 2015, and for counter comments is the 7th of January 2016.
In the paper (download the PDF), the TRAI has asked the following questions:
Question 1: Should the TSPs be allowed to have differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications or platforms?
Question 2: If differential pricing for data usage is permitted, what measures should be adopted to ensure that the principles of nondiscrimination, transparency, affordable internet access, competition and market entry and innovation are addressed?
Question 3. Are there alternative methods/technologies/business models, other than differentiated tariff plans, available to achieve the objective of providing free internet access to the consumers? If yes, please suggest/describe these methods/technologies/business models. Also, describe the potential benefits and disadvantages associated with such methods/technologies/business models?
Question-4: Is there any other issue that should be considered in the present consultation on differential pricing for data services?
Update: Compare these questions with those asked in the last consultation paper on Net Neutrality:
Question 14: Is there a justification for allowing differential pricing for data access and OTT communication services? If so, what changes need to be brought about in the present tariff and regulatory framework for telecommunication services in the country? Please comment with justifications.
Question 15: Should OTT communication service players be treated as Bulk User of Telecom Services (BuTS)? How should the framework be structured to prevent any discrimination and protect stakeholder interest? Please comment with justification.
So what is new?
The questions raised in this consultation paper are essentially a deeper look at the issues raised in the last (problematic) consultation paper. We’re not sure of what the TRAI is trying to achieve with this, but it’s implications could be any of the following:
1. It could mean that this negates the past submissions related to price discrimination, where over 1 million Indian citizens emailed the TRAI*. In our opinion, those points of view should not be discarded just because a new consultation paper has been framed.
2. Or, this could be the means of splitting that consultation paper into two parts. One half would be about addressing price discrimination (which this paper is about), and the other part is about licensing and regulation of Internet services, including VoIP.
3. Or, it could mean that the TRAI wants a deeper dive into understanding these issues.
In either case, the TRAI should clarify what it’s intent is behind beginning this process. It’s worth noting that the regulator has still not held an open house consultation on Net Neutrality, despite the counter comment phase having ended on May 8th 2015. However, unlike the last consultation paper, this one isn’t draconian or leading in its approach, nor does it look as if a telecom operator executive wrote it.
MediaNama’s submission to the TRAI, which covers price discrimination, is available here.
Disclosure: I am a co-founder of Savetheinternet.in, the campaign for Net Neutrality in India. MediaNama has taken a strong position in favor of Net Neutrality and against price discrimination.