Staying neutral

| Updated on January 12, 2018

TRAI’s consultation paper gives the regulator an opportunity to redeem itself by mandating net neutrality without exceptions

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s consultation paper on the complex issue of net neutrality comes at a time when the country is on the cusp of a digital revolution. Over the past two years, there have been several piecemeal attempts to determine India’s approach to this issue but the latest paper is perhaps the most comprehensive exercise in prescribing a roadmap for ensuring net neutrality. Internet consumption in India is rapidly growing with as many as 370 million subscribers already using data services in one form or the other. This huge market opportunity has pitted large telecom companies and internet giants against each other in their bid to corner the largest share of the pie. So it is critical that India sets out clear regulations prohibiting all practices that tilt the network in favour of anyone. TRAI must ensure that the battle be fought through innovative products and best quality services, rather than by gaming the network to influence consumer behaviour.

However, increasingly, concerns have been raised globally relating to discriminatory treatment of internet traffic by telecom service providers. For example, mobile operators can get into an agreement with a specific content provider that will enable users to get faster access to the latter’s website compared to another content provider’s site. This arrangement can be done through network manipulation and operators can camouflage it as fair traffic management practice. Such deals, if allowed, will push out newer players and ensure that only those players with significant financial muscle thrive. This is also detrimental from the consumer point of view as their usage pattern will be controlled by the telecom companies. To be fair, all telecom operators openly support the idea of net neutrality. Therefore, they argue, internet services should be under a self-regulatory mechanism for adhering to core principles of neutrality. But, in reality, there is a risk of some operators indulging in discriminatory practices such as blocking of particular content or tweaking speeds for access to particular services. The bigger risk in allowing self regulation is that most consumers in India, being first time users of internet, would not even realise that their network has been gamed to favour a particular content provider.

The TRAI has rightly pointed out that end users should be informed about such traffic management practices and the reason for which they are being deployed. The regulator should also put in place a mechanism to monitor and enforce the principles of net neutrality. In February last year, the TRAI had taken a bold and forward-looking decision by disallowing differential pricing for data services. But then it allowed differential tariffs to be offered for data transmitted over so-called ‘closed electronic communications networks’ leaving the door open for telecom operators to create a parallel network. The latest consultation paper gives TRAI the opportunity to redeem itself by mandating neutrality without exceptions.

Published on January 05, 2017

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