By Aroon Deep and Nikhil Pahwa

In a letter on March 21, the Cellular Operators Association of India requested TRAI to allow telcos to zero-rate websites related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter was first reported by the Economic Times, which said that a copy of the letter was also sent to the Department of Telecommunications. MediaNama has reached out to TRAI for comment. In 2016, the telecom regulator prohibited discriminatory pricing of data*, a decision that telcos and the COAI have even recently demanded be reversed.

This week, the COAI succeeded in pressing the vast majority of big streaming services in India to lower their video quality, to address network load. The current letter represents a much more direct test of Net Neutrality principles. It requests that access to a list of websites — some of them private, and one of them not even working as this story is written — not be charged.

MediaNama’s take (Nikhil Pahwa adds)

  • Is this even necessary? According to the latest data from TRAI, over 642 million Indians have a broadband connection, mostly mobile, consuming almost 10GB per month. The cost of internet access per GB is around ₹7. A relatively heavy website will be, let’s say, 50MB to access. Thus, it will cost a user less than ₹0.35 to access that site: around ₹0.0068 per MB. Government websites, named in the letter, which use less data, would probably cost around ₹0.003 to use.Things have changed from the days of the Net Neutrality campaign, where the cost of data was around Rs 226 per GB: ₹0.22 per MB. In that case, the same 50 MB website would cost ₹11 to access.
    The point is: The cost of data is so low now that there is no need to zero-rate sites. If this is about allowing access to information to people who don’t have Internet connections, the telcos or even the government, can simply provide an emergency allowance for all subscribers of, say, 1GB per month, and recommend resources to access for information on the pandemic. It’ll cost them just ₹7 per customer, and for the 400 million odd customers not on the Internet, cost just ₹280 crores to enable.
  • The COAI is just being opportunistic: Despite the fact that TRAI ruled against COAI, telcos and Facebook in the discriminatory pricing matter, COAI has never stopped asking for it to be allowed. Investors tend to say that one should never waste a good crisis, and this is just a case of the COAI being opportunistic and trying to use a global disaster to establish a precedent to justify zero-rating. TRAI should not concede to these demands.

*Disclosure: Nikhil Pahwa had led the SaveTheInternet campaign for Net Neutrality, against Zero Rating