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TRAI wants telcos to advertise data packs in ‘nutrition label format’

India’s telecom regulator TRAI asks in a consultation paper whether telcos and ISPs should be mandatorily disclosing network performance indicators to consumers such as latency, average speeds, peak time speeds, etc., similar  to US regulator FCC’s ‘Broadband Facts’ label. The consultation paper titled “Data Speeds Under Wireless Broadband Plan” looks at various issues like minimum speeds, disclosures to users regarding tariff plans, methods to audit Internet speeds offered by mobile service providers, and revision on mandatory QoS parameters.

Note this is the third consultation paper issued by TRAI in the past one year which looks into quality of service issues faced by consumers:
-In August 2016, it issued a consultation which mooted setting up of an independent authority to deal with mobile complaints made by consumers, after which it issued recommendations on he same in March. Here is a summary.
-In June 2016, TRAI looked at challenges faced by consumers when they are forced to use a singular service from an operator due to builders/developers entering exclusive into agreements with telcos/ISPs for coverage.  The regulator then issued a recommendation to DoT in January banning exclusive agreements.

However, the current consultation broadly looks at how service providers could be held accountable for poor service. Disclosing granular network performance indicators can act as a catalyst to consumers, allowing them to make better-informed choices while buying data, TRAI said in the paper. Below is a summary of issues discussed by TRAI in the paper and how it plans to bring more clarity in tariff/data pack advertisements published by service providers:

On Broadband Speeds

TRAI said that it has taken note of an increasing number of complaints from consumers regarding “dissatisfaction with the speed of data being provided to the under wireless broadband plans (3G/4G packs).” It added that the “widespread imposition of download limits or caps expressed in MBs or GBs does not give consumers a clear understanding of how much they can actually download.”

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TRAI also pointed out that data speeds advertised my mobile operators often are not delivered to users:
“…crowd-sourced data from TRAI’s mySpeed portal shows that quite a few 3G subscribers throughout the country receive a download speed of less than 1 Mbps. Moreover, these `below 1 Mbps’ speeds can go as low as 10 Kbps for some 3G subscribers.”

No clarity over minimum speeds for cell operators: In November last year, the regulator mandated broadband providers to ensure a minimum download speed of 512 Kbps including for plans that follow a fair usage policy (FUP). But when the amendment was made in 2013, it included cellular service providers, including those using standards like Wi-Max, HSPA, CDMA/WCDMA, and LTE (4G), TRAI said in the paper. However, the November 2016 direction from TRAI did not explicitly state whether the 512k Kbps is mandatory for cellular operators as well. There also have been instances of service providers throttling mobile speeds below 512 kbps: Jio throttles Internet speeds to below 128 Kbps after fair-usage data limit.

Related: We get Airtel is a 90s baby, but the suggestion for post FUP speed of 64kbps is stupid

On disclosures made by providers and user privacy

A broadband service’s Quality of Service (QoS) standard can be measured in many ways including latency, uplink/downlink speeds; TRAI says that mandating telcos to disclose such information to consumers can bring in more transparency. But TRAI notes any such disclosure must be made in a way that common consumers can understand.  Service providers classify their technology as 2G/3G/4G, but as pointed above there is not guarantee of the advertised speeds being met, and not all consumers understand the difference between these technologies.

To fix this, TRAI proposes a user-friendly method similar to how information is classified in a nutrition label. This approach was adopted by US telecom regulator the FCC in 2015; it ordered service providers to mandatorily include network performance metrics like “typical speed”, “typical latency”, and “typical packet loss” in their packs. The label also includes prices, performance standards, and any other network throttling applied by the provider, instead of just advertising wholesale network speeds, as seen in the case of Indian operators.

User Privacy on speed test apps: Certain speed tests apps and portal collect sensitive user information like location and request device level permission that can pose risks to the user. To overcome this, TRAI said that such speed test portals could perform ‘data anonymization’ and not link properties user location and other sensitive details to actual user profiles. The regulator also wanted increased awareness among consumers about privacy risks that speed test portals pose.

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Question for Consultation

Q1: Is the information on wireless broadband speeds currently being made available to consumers is transparent enough for making informed choices?

Q2: If it is difficult to commit a minimum download speed, then could average speed be specified by the service providers? What should be the parameters for calculating average speed?

Q3: What changes can be brought about to the existing framework on wireless broadband tariff plans to encourage better transparency and comparison between plans offered by different service providers?

Q4: Is there a need to include/delete any of the QoS parameters and/or revise any of the benchmarks currently stipulated in the Regulations?

Q5: Should disclosure of average network performance over a period of time or at peak times including through broadband facts/labels be made mandatory?

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Q6: Should standard application/ websites be identified for mandating comparable disclosures about network speeds?

Q7: What are the products/technologies that can be used to measure actual end-user experience on mobile broadband networks? At what level should the measurements take place (e.g., on the device, network node)?

Q8: Are there any legal, security, privacy or data sensitivity issues with collecting device level data?

  1. a) If so, how can these issues be addressed?
  2. b) Do these issues create a challenge for the adoption of any measurement tools?

Q9: What measures can be taken to increase awareness among consumers about wireless broadband speeds, availability of various technological tools to monitor them and any potential concerns that may arise in the process?

Q10: Any other issue related to the matter of Consultation?

Download: Consultation Paper

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