In India, historically, we have grown up accepting that ISPs and telecom operators can charge us based on speed-based tiers in wireline connections, data usage-based restrictions, as well as time-based restrictions. We accept that as a norm, because those were imposed on us when bandwidth was low, competition was limited, and consumers were less aware. In the past, the government has had to nudge ISPs to improve speeds for users, by changing the definition of what is called broadband in the country.

Earlier this month, Airtel and Vodafone, on mobile, launched Premium plans, where they offer a higher quality of service (consistency in speed of connectivity) to certain customers. There a couple of issues to consider here:

Firstly, Net Neutrality, especially since we’ve received many queries regarding this issue: India’s definition of net neutrality is around source based manipulation of speed or price, which can shape a user’s experience of the open Internet by charging in a differential manner for using different apps, or slowing down or speeding up particular apps. It could be specific to a particular service or to category of services (video, messaging), and not necessarily for tiering of speeds. The net neutrality concern from an India perspective does not apply to these premium plans, which seem to be a tiering of services, because the usage of particular online service doesn’t get affected. That being said, because spectrum is limited, if because of lower speeds some users find it difficult to use high bandwidth services like video, this is potentially a Net Neutrality consideration, because that would mean that it is effectively the slowing down of high bandwidth applications for users, despite having the capability to allow those services to work.

Secondly, is the issue of impact on subscribers, and whether there needs to be regulatory intervention to ensure quality of service for subscribers. This is not a new issue for the TRAI. In 2009, MediaNama had reported on the TRAI’s consultation paper on “Bandwidth required for ISPs for better connectivity and improved quality of service” [pdf], where it considered imposing contention ratios on ISPs, to ensure better quality of service. Contention ratio is defined the number of users competing for the same bandwidth, and ISPs are often guilty of subscriber stuffing: adding too many subscribers to a connection, which leads to high congestion and poor quality of service.

At that point in time, the TRAI did not mandate a contention ratio. It said then that:

“any regulatory burden in present economic environment of Internet sector may increase the cost of service provisioning and will adversely impact the growth of broadband. The Authority prefers least regulatory intervention while providing greater flexibility to service providers (ISPs, UASLs, CMSPs, BSOs) to ensure better quality of service to internet/broadband subscribers.” [pdf]

In effect, the TRAI failed consumers by not mandating contention ratios, and allowing for market forces to determine consumer experience of services being paid for. This is despite the fact that consumers often did not have sufficient choice: both in wireless and wireline, market forces failed consumers until 2016. In wireless, the three major telecom operators cartelised, accounting for, at one point in time, 69% of total connections. Airtel, in fact, began this ghastly practice of reducing speeds for users who used data beyond a particular level, called the “Fair Usage Policy”, effectively punishing paying customers for using the Internet beyond a limit that Airtel deemed they should be allowed to. This is despite the fact that there were no data caps.

From 2016: The Fair usage policy and data caps for broadband must go.

In wireline, neighbourhood monopolies mean that consumers are at the mercy of their ISPs (and ISPs at the mercy of local cable operators), and this situation persists even to this day.

The Regulatory Opportunity for TRAI

If there has been an improvement in connectivity since 2016–17, it is only because Reliance Jio has threatened the survival of both incumbent wireline and wireless ISPs.

The approach of Airtel and Vodafone, to try and establish speed based tiers for mobile Internet services poses some very interesting questions, and more importantly, a critical regulatory opportunity for the TRAI: that of revisiting quality of service issues, and establishing consumer protection measures. While in wireline, they need to enforce norms such as contention ratio and establish mechanisms to address regular down-time, the wireless sector is going to be far more difficult.

Wireline connectivity is impacted by quality of copper, distance from boosters and attenuation (or the reduction in speed of access). In case of wireless connectivity, there is impact from many more factors, including distance from towers, power lines, physical obstacles like buildings and hills, among many others. Quality of service varies drastically in wireless connections, which is why historically, the tiers in terms of pricing for telecom operators, have been in terms of technology in use, like 2G, 3G and 4G, and not in terms of speed on offer, and lack of reliability of connectivity is the norm.

If Vodafone Idea and Airtel are guaranteeing a certain quality of service or speed to a set of premium subscribers, two questions arise:

  • How do they ensure that quality of service is available to premium subscribers?
  • Does this also that there is a reduction of quality of service to non-premium subscribers, because of limited available bandwidth?

It is right for the TRAI to ascertain how telecom operators are going to implement this, and what kind of impact it will have on subscribers, before they rule on whether these plans should be allowed or not. The interim ban from the TRAI on these services is reasonable and justified, but the TRAI should use this opportunity to see how it can actually improve consumer experience, and begin a consultation on quality of service and contention ratios.

It has been 11 years since the consultation on broadband speeds. The TRAI of 2009 failed Internet consumers. The current TRAI should do better.