An aggressive push for internet coverage veiling a zero-rated service that violates net neutrality, we have seen this before. The Cable Operators Association (COA) – the largest organisation of independent cable TV operators in Kerala – announced it will lay optical fibre across the state and ‘aggressively’ promote its broadband service.

The New Indian Express reported that the COA will promote its mobile app through which it plans to deliver media content, essentially an OTT service. The concern though is that the service provider plans to provide access to its own OTT platform outside of without additional cost or data, a move that is a flagrant violation of net neutrality principles. The service provider is seemingly trying to circumvent TRAI’s suggestions on net neutrality by suggesting that the OTT service will be accessible over the intranet, which is essentially access via local servers.

COA is a major player in the southern state. The COA run company Kerala Communicators Cable Limited (KCCL) is set to become the largest broadband service provider in the state by Onam (which starts mid-August) this year. The New Indian Express reports that KCCL currently has 25,000 broadband customers. Independent operators provide broadband to another 1.5 lakh homes, all of whom will be migrated to KCCL’s broadband service.

Kerala’s free WiFi and net neutrality

In August 2017, the Kerala government unveiled a public WiFi project. The state had announced plans to set up WiFi hotspots in 2,000 public places like government offices, bus stops, parks, tourist destinations, courts and public ‘seva kendras’. The WiFI service offers free 300 MB of usage to every user per day.

Access to various e-Governance, m-governance services, public content available in the State Data Centres is available without any limit from the hotspot locations. This was in violation of Net Neutrality, and the TRAI’s differential pricing rules.

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”. This is clearly an instance of the tariff being different (in this case free) for “e-Governance, m-governance services, public content available in the State Data Centres”, beyond the 300 MB data consumption.

Kerala government’s fiber optic ambitions

Similar to the center government’s BharatNet and Tamil Nadu government’s ‘Arasu Cable’, the Kerala government too has an optical fiber deployment project—Kerala Optical Fiber Network (K-OFN)—in the works. The deployment will be focused on connecting state headquarters, district blocks, and gram panchayats. The bandwidth capacity will be between 2 Mbps to 100 Mbps. The optical fiber network will be installed through partnership with state electricity board (KSEB) via existing power lines across the state. A free broadband connection of 2 Mbps will be given to families holding a BPL card.