TRAI to start net neutrality pre-consultation

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is to start a pre-consultation on net neutrality this week amid calls from the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) to lift a ban on differential pricing of data services.

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"We will start pre-consultation on net neutrality in 2-3 days," TRAI chairman Ram Sewak Sharma said to numerous local reporters today.

India’s landmark open internet policy in February 2016 banned zero-rating and the related practice of differential pricing, which the regulator said: “Telecom service providers will be prohibited from offering different/discriminatory tariffs based on content, service, application or any other data which the user is accessing or transmitting on the internet.”

It dealt a heavy blow to Facebook’s Free Basics programme to offer free access to its social media services via certain operators, including Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications, in support of implementing net neutrality rules.

The Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016 disallowed service providers to offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content being accessed by a consumer, which is a major part of net neutrality. However, the subject did not cover other parts of net neutrality like framework for internet-based calls, messaging, throttling of internet speed on the basis of content or paid preferences.

Industry body COAI has written to TRAI seeking further clarification on the differential rules on whether operators can offer services exclusively to their customers and asking the regulator to change its mind in light of the confusion over services delivered via closed electronic communication networks (CECNs).

The letter asks TRAI “to review its decision of the CECN network and allow differential tariffs on the basis of content irrespective of whether such content is provided through the closed network or open internet”.

Net neutrality supporters recognise CECNs could offer a loophole for operators to offer zero-rated services.

TRAI’s Sharma said it will take a call on the issue raised by telecom operators based on the tariff they file with the regulator detailing the services they intend to provide for their customers.

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