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Net Neutrality recommendations get Telecom Commission approval; Some issues

The Telecom Commission has approved the TRAI’s recommendations on Net Neutrality, reports the Economic times: these recommendations were specific to throttling and blocking of websites, and more traditional Net Neutrality issues, and will lead to the amendment of ISP and Telecom Operator licenses to include Net Neutrality provisions. Amendments have been recommended by the TRAI for all four access services licenses: Universal License, Universal Access Service License, ISP License, Cellular Mobile Telephony Service license.

What this means is that any Net Neutrality violation will now be deemed to be a violation of Telecom Operator license conditions, and could lead to the cancellation of the license. This is the practical means of enforcing Net Neutrality, since passing a Net Neutrality Law, albeit a stronger measure, is far more complex and cumbersome.

As per these recommendations, telecom operators may do reasonable traffic management, but not give preferential treatment to any service or type of service, except for some services or under some conditions. Some specialised services are excempt from non-discriminatory access restrictions, as well as critical IoT services (which will be defined by the Department of Telecommunications). Content Delivery Networks have been kept out of the ambit of these regulations, which is fine, since the task they perform is of optimisation of traffic between ISPs, and do not operate at “the last mile” of Internet access, which is between an ISP and an Internet user.

These, combined with the differential pricing regulation which banned Zero Rating, gives India the strongest Net Neutrality regulations in the world. However…

Some problems remain

1. Specialised services: TRAI says Specialised Services can’t be a replacement for Internet Access Services, and their provisioning shouldn’t be detrimental to Internet Access. To a TV channel last year, TRAI Chairman RS Sharma said that these may include autonomous cars, remote access surgery. However, a more thorough reading of the TRAI recommendations suggests that IPTV (video streaming?) and VoIP, which are in some cases licensed services, may be exempt.

“The license agreement identifies the categories of services that can be offered by licensed service providers. This includes the provision of VoIP and IPTV services, which may also qualify as specialised services under the suggested definition. In the event that a service provider proposes to carry out any other categories of specialised services an enabling provision relating to the same may need to be introduced in the license. Accordingly, the DoT may amend the license from time to time to specify the categories of services permitted to be carried out by licensed service providers. To the extent that such services are permitted under the license and also fall under the definition of specialised services, they would not be subject to the principles of non-discriminatory treatment.

What this means is that VoIP and IPTV (video streaming?) services operated by ISPs under a license may be given a discriminatory preference over other services. Thus, an Airtel Talk VoIP app might perform better than, say, Whatsapp. However, there is still some consolation here. The recommendations also emphasise that:

“the provision of such services should not be detrimental to the availability and overall quality of Internet Access Services. This could be monitored using various quality of service parameters.”

This means that prioritisation of an Airtel Talk should not lead to the deprecation of overall quality of Internet Access, and thus other services. All in all, this is not great, but it’s not as bad as it could have been.

This will, of course, have to be monitored.

2. Where’s the monitoring? The TRAI recommendations do not cover transparency and disclosure norms for telecom operators, saying only that “The Authority proposes to supplement its existing disclosure and transparency requirements by framing additional regulations in this regard.”

The TRAI has also been unable to define any means of monitoring and enforcement of these recommendations. It has passed that buck on to the DoT, saying that it may establish a multi-stakeholder body “with framework for collaborative mechanism among the stakeholders. The multistakeholder body, not for profit, led by industry may comprise members representing different categories of TSPs and ISPs, large and small content providers, representatives from research and academia, civil society organisations and consumer representatives. The terms, conditions and governance structure etc. would be recommended by TRAI once this recommendation is
accepted by the Government in principle.”

So, the TRAI’s work is still not done.

Download: TRAI’s Net Neutrality recommendations.

Disclosure: I’m a co-founder of the SaveTheInternet campaign for Net Neutrality

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