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‘No need for committee to enforce net neutrality’: Airtel to TRAI

A multi-stakeholder committee is not needed to over see net neutrality compliance in India, Airtel told TRAI in its submission. “Since Net-Neutrality principles are already a part of licensing conditions, and the DoT is fully empowered and capable of ensuring that licensees are compliant to licensing conditions, there is no need for establishing a Multi-Stakeholder body,” it said in its response to TRAI’s consultation paper. TRAI is seeking views from stakeholders on what a committee to enforce net neutrality should look like in India. It is also looking into issues related to traffic management practices as these could affect net neutrality.

In the UK, the communications regulator Ofcom requires telecom providers to answer and publish a questionnaire that details, in simple terms, how they manage traffic in terms of throttling specific types of content or prioritising traffic. (Here’s Vodafone UK’s form for its broadband products.)


Read: Jio argues for industry-led Net Neutrality enforcement


Airtel’s main suggestions

Although Airtel said a committee is unnecessary, it had some suggestions if one were formed:

  • Veto on membership for telecom operators: For its membership, the company suggested that a pool of representatives from academia and content providers be included, but internet providers should have a veto on recommendations: “Since TSPs/ISPs will be required to implement these recommendations, it is important that the recommendations should be finalized only if these have been consented to by the TSPs’/ISPs’ representatives as a whole.”
  • COAI should set up the committee: Airtel also said that the COAI, a telecom lobby, should be charged with setting up the committee.
  • Tiered fee structure: Like Jio, Airtel suggested that membership fees should be tiered based on the size of the member. But in an interesting twist, the company added that telcos should be fully exempt “as TSPs/ISPs will mandatorily be required to become members of the body”. Also, it suggested that members in the “Other” category be classified into members, associates and observers, with different slab of subscription feed.
  • Tiered powers: Of the members in the “Other” category, Airtel suggested that members should have the right to take part in the review and decision-making of the multi-stakeholder body. Associates should only have right to “assess information available on this platform”. Observers would not have access to the information but could request for it by “paying fees per requisition”.

Traffic management practices: Airtel sought a wide berth for its traffic management practices saying that rolling 5G out would need more sophisticated techniques. “[I]nnovative approaches to data delivery will be necessary to take full advantage of 5G capabilities such as network slicing, edge computing and quality based prioritization.” Airtel also said that it prioritises video streaming and call traffic at peak times over email and other static content so that “delay sensitive” services such as voice calls and video streaming work smoothly. “Services that are non-real time, e.g., email, web browsing, etc., can be provided a lower priority during periods of congestion with little or no impact on user experience.”

  • In a counter-comment, Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick cautioned against allowing the kind of flexibility Airtel is asking for. “ISPs have routinely blocked or discriminated against specific applications or types of applications to manage congestion when they were not required to manage their networks in an application-agnostic manner,” she wrote. She recommended an explicit prohibition of class-specific prioritisation that Airtel has pressed for.

Airtel also took the opportunity to make one of its most well-worn net neutrality arguments — that factors other than the internet service provider’s network, such as users’ devices and online content providers themselves, should also be responsible for keeping the internet neutral. In doing so, it repeated its misleading claim that Netflix throttled video streams for viewers in the United States (Netflix used to stream videos of lower resolution than usual for users on mobile data to avoid exhausting their data allowance. It ended the practice in 2016).

Links: Airtel’s filing | TRAI consultation

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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