Telecom operators have not been reasonable when managing traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially important as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is holding a Net Neutrality consultation process right now about reasonable traffic management. The Department of Telecommunications’ license for telcos is clear that traffic management practices should be “proportionate, transient and transparent”.
In March, telecom operators essentially forced internet companies to start reducing the bitrates of their video streams. Since the Cellular Operators Association of India was able to convince the telecom secretary to personally reach out to internet companies, the latter had no choice. They fell in line. This was a traffic management practice directed by the telcos, with the only caveat being that they got content providers to execute the task for them.
Was what telcos did proportionate? No. Traffic surged only 15% after the COVID-19 lockdown started on mobile networks. Airtel has been almost doubling its traffic every year, so it is hard to imagine that telcos wouldn’t be prepared for a 15% spurt in usage.
Was what they did transient? The moment telecom operators realized that these restrictions were not necessary, they should have immediately withdrawn their request to internet companies. But they chose to wait. YouTube continues to cap video quality at 480p for all mobile users in India, even those on WiFi. It has been over three months since the restrictions started.
Were telcos transparent? While we have gotten some general industry-level insights into traffic spikes, individual telecom operators have not responded to our multiple queries on the necessity of these limitations. Asking internet companies to throttle their traffic at this scale is an extraordinary demand, and should be followed by a willingness to share insights from the aftermath of these restrictions. But telecom operators did not even respond to basic questions, nor did they clearly signal to internet companies that they could lift these restrictions.
What should TRAI do?
Telecom operators’ apparent failure to adhere to the spirit of their license terms is alarming, especially in the context of the traffic management debate that TRAI is having right now. This episode makes it very clear that telecom operators need to be required to provide transparent insight into how their networks manage traffic, as they have demonstrated carelessness in their commitment to the principles that are at the heart of reasonable traffic management.
In the long term, TRAI should come up with transparency standards and disclosure requirements that will make sure telecom operators have little wiggle room to treat Net Neutrality like an afterthought.
But for now, TRAI must order telecom operators to formally withdraw their bitrate directive to internet companies. There is precedent for this: when Airtel tried to charge separately for VoIP calls on its network in 2014, TRAI told it to stop and wait for a consultation (which would eventually lead to a ban on differential pricing, a significant Net Neutrality win). The same dynamics are at play here, except the consultation process is already ongoing. As such, we hope that TRAI will continue to stand up for the Net Neutrality and open internet principles it has shown leadership in for the last five years.
This piece is adapted from our comments at the TRAI Open House Discussion on Net Neutrality on Wednesday. Read our live blog from that discussion. Here’s all you need to know about the consultation. TRAI is accepting responses in this process until June 29.