As the dust settled on the controversy over Facebook’s Free Basics, with a strong point seemingly scored for net neutrality, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) re-opened the debate with a new pre-consultation paper, inviting public discussion on the topic. This is the fourth consultation paper from the Authority on the subject.
Previous papers issued by TRAI in May 2016, December 2015 and March 2015 had dealt with questions of free data, differential pricing for data services and internet licensing and net neutrality. Of these, the second consultation paper attracted widespread attention focused on Facebook’s Free Basics scheme.
Facebook initiated a massive advertisement campaign to gather support for its service, while a volunteer-driven counter campaign – Save the Internet – was also launched. Earlier this year, in a landmark ruling, TRAI shut down Free Basics and Airtel’s Zero Rating schemes for violating Net Neutrality
The new pre-consultation paper continues to profess strong support for protecting net neutrality in India, raising a key question regarding data speeds. The paper emphasises the need for telecom providers to provide unrestricted access without blocking or throttling data speeds beyond that required for proper traffic management, or without giving preference to any form of data.
Should Whatsapp, Viber and Skype be charged for offering calling facility?
One main issue that the consultation paper grapples with, is whether there is a need to level the field between telcos and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers like Whatsapp and Viber that provide voice-calling over the internet. While the paper considers keeping international calls (via VoIP) unrestricted, TRAI is considering charging for VoIP services and the paper suggests the application of regulations on domestic calls, citing public safety and national security among other reasons. However, it does not clarify the kind of issues involved.
Why you should care
Today, a Whatsapp call is cheaper than a traditional phone call. With more people using 3G and 4G internet plans on their phones, Whatsapp calls are slowly replacing traditional phone calls because it is directly and drastically reducing the phone bill. A Whatsapp call consumes less than 1 mb per minute, which costs less than 25 paise per minute on an internet plan, while phone calls cost about 50p to 1 Rupee per minute depending on the plan.
If telcos charge Whatsapp, Skype and Viber for voice-calling over the internet, then applications could charge specifically for voice-calling to compensate for the loss. Only the telcos stand to gain from this scenario at no additional costs since whether it is voice calling or texting, data over the internet is treated the same.
The future of video
The paper also foresees a burgeoning problem in India’s changing consumption of data shifting towards video. It cites CISCO's Visual Networking Index Forecast, which shows that internet video traffic is expected to constitute 74% of all Internet traffic in India by 2019, up from 46% in 2014. Other sources too have pointed to a burgeoning consumption of video in India.
For instance, a study by the pornographic video provider, Pornhub showed that, after the US and the UK, their third highest android traffic comes from India. Couple that with the emergence of video providers like Hotstar and Netflix in India, and video consumption over the internet is at an all-time high.
If India’s online consumption is changing to video, it puts a stress on the network as videos are data-heavy compared to text and pictures. One way to overcome this is if telecom providers improve their infrastructure. But a more cost-effective solution for them is to monitor traffic and reduce speeds for video.
Why you should care?
Power in the hands of ISPs has never turned out well for the consumer. There is a fine line between reasonable traffic management and unfair interference with internet traffic and history has shown that telecom companies often tend to create profit-oriented schemes. Few years ago, telecom provider Comcast deliberately reduced Netflix speeds in the US, forcing Netflix to pay compensation to Comcast. If regulations are not tightened, we could see a repeat of Netflix-Comcast in India.
Reasonable Traffic Management by ISPs?
Interestingly, the paper also adds:
“The use of reasonable traffic management techniques may sometimes become essential to protect the quality of the consumer's experience, especially in times of extreme network congestion”
Why you should care:
With around 350 million internet users, India has the second-largest number of internet users in the world. TRAI has its task cut out in formulating a regulatory framework that, on the one hand does not tamper with user experience of the internet while also ensuring that the infrastructure supporting the internet is maintained.
The intentions of the telecom providers are quite clear from the fact that the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), an industry lobby for telecom providers, has already lobbied TRAI to scrap its landmark net neutrality regulation. The line between management and interference is a narrow and easily abused one.
In sum, the paper asks 6 key questions:
1) What should be regarded as the core principles of net neutrality in the Indian context? What are the key issues that are required to be considered so that the principles of net neutrality are ensured?
2) What are the reasonable traffic management practices that may need to be followed by TSPs while providing Internet access services and in what manner could these be misused? Are there any other current or potential practices in India that may give rise to concerns about net neutrality?
3) What should be India's policy and/or regulatory approach in dealing with issues relating to net neutrality? Please comment with justifications.
4) What precautions must be taken with respect to the activities of TSPs and content providers to ensure that national security interests are preserved? Please comment with justification.
5) What precautions must be taken with respect to the activities of TSPs and content providers to maintain customer privacy? Please comment with justification.
6) What further issues should be considered for a comprehensive policy framework for defining the relationship between TSPs and OTT content providers?
TRAI is inviting public response on the topic till June 21. You can email TRAI at email@example.com.