Over the past couple of days, several people have reached out to me, asking about whether the JioPhone, the much awaited 4G feature phone announced by Reliance Jio, violates Net Neutrality or not. Two financial research entities (Deutsche Bank and Kotak), have already flagged Net Neutrality concerns, but to be honest, I don’t know if there’s cause for concern just yet.
This is because we don’t have enough information on the phone and how JioPhone(s) may or may not limit users. From an applications and services (i.e. content) perspective, we know that a Rs 153 recharge pack for JioPhone gives user unlimited data, free voice/video calls and a subscription to Jio apps. What we don’t know is whether other applications will be allowed on it or not, whether users can download and run apps from the open Internet, or whether users will be able to flash the ROM and install another operating system and the data plan remains valid. There are unconfirmed reports about an applications store from Jio, who’s Operating System is based on KaiOS (a fork of the Firefox OS) but we don’t know how this will function.
Net Neutrality from a Network perspective
Net Neutrality mandates that networks don’t give a competitive advantage to any particular user: As Prof Ajay Shah pointed out, networks are meant to be exchanges of data, and trust in the functioning of the network remains as long as they remain neutral. Thus, the network must not discriminate.
From a pricing perspective, this is covered with the first part of TRAI’s Differential Pricing ruling (pdf), which states that “No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content”.
That is clearly not happening in this case, because this tariff is for the device and not the content.
Net Neutrality from a devices perspective
The TRAI’s order also states that “no service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content.”
Essentially, it means that you cannot do indirectly what you can’t do directly: Limiting a plan to a device that limits content to a specific set determined by Jio would not be allowed, because it would have the same effect as discriminatory tariffs for data services, and would be in violation of the TRAI order.
The only exception to this is in case of a Closed Electronic Communications Network (CECN), in a manner that the services offered are not for the purpose of evading the restriction. Thus Jio will not be able to mirror its online services in a closed electronic communications network, because the same principle (you cannot do indirectly what you can do directly) would be applicable.
It would be unexpected of them to do this, incidentally. In Jio’s Net Neutrality filing earlier this year, it had suggested the following practices to the TRAI as “Non reasonable practices”:
– Throttling of speed of services offered by a competing operator.
– Blanket filters on some kinds of content (say gaming content)
– Giving differential access to applications, content or services to CDN or cache facilities and thereby throttling them
– Blocking or termination practices that are applied at the transit node without user choice.
Only allowing certain apps on a device locked to a network would mean that there’s differential access given to the apps. However, this was only for networks, and not devices.
If they take the indirect approach of differential access/pricing, it will test the TRAI’s resolve to enforce its regulation.
While you’re here, do watch this great testimony by Jason Devitt, especially point two of the last three points he makes.
Questions for Jio
We’ve sent Jio the following questions:
1. Does the JioPhone (or any of the JioPhone models) restrict users to Jio apps only?
2. Does the JioPhone (or any of the JioPhone models) restrict apps on the phone to apps approved by Jio only?
3. Does the JioPhone (or any of the JioPhone models) restrict downloading or installation of apps from the open Internet?
4. Does the bundling plan for JioPhone (or any of the JioPhone models) place any restrictions on a user installing any other operating system on the device?
Jio’s position, historically, has been anti-Net Neutrality
Earlier this year, Jio pitched for Net Neutrality violating principles such as “same service same rule principle”, and “acceptance of specialised and managed services on the same physical broadband medium”, as well as exceptions for enterprise, customer care and financial services, and for looking at Net Neutrality violations on case-by-case basis, even though that would increase compliance costs, and create uncertainty. More on this here.
In 2015, it had been decidedly regressive in its approach: wanting registration for all Internet apps and services, zero rating, price prioritisation for India based OTT apps, as well as differential pricing of content. More on this here.