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Net neutrality in India: Big setback for telcos, no decision taken on WhatsApp, Viber, other OTT players

By / November 29, 2017 / / 0 Comments

After having stopped differential data pricing last year in February, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on Tuesday came out with a comprehensive set of recommendations on net neutrality which disallows any discriminatory practices on the net like throttling, choking or accelerating of select websites by telecom operators or internet service providers. While Trai has provided for areas like specialised services and content delivery networks to be outside the purview of net neutrality, the biggest disappointment for telecom operators was that it has deferred to take a call on whether over-the-top (OTT) operators like WhatsApp, Viber, etc, need to be brought under a regulatory and licensing framework.

Telecom operators have been arguing since 2015 when the first consultation paper on OTTs was brought out by Trai that since OTTs like WhatsApp provide services like calls, they should also be brought under the same rules that applies to telcos. However, in a huge disappointment for them, Trai in its over-50-page recommendation merely said that it would bring a separate consultation paper on OTTs at a later date.

Speaking to FE, Trai chairman RS Sharma said that a decision on whether OTTs should be regulated or not did not figure in this set of recommendations because “we thought that it is not central to the discussion on net neutrality”.

While the prohibition on differential data pricing remains, which basically means that whatever is available on the net cannot be differently priced by telcos for their subscribers through any exclusive tie-ups with content providers, Trai has now chalked out three areas — specialised services, content delivery networks, and traffic management — where operators can be outside the purview of the principles of net neutrality.

Apart from these three areas the earlier leeway to telecom operators to offer free content to their users via their closed communication networks (intranet) would also continue. However, since it has not framed specific rules with regard to how the new exceptional areas would work vis-a-vis telcos and just laid down the broad principles, telecom operators were disappointed since for clarity they would have to wait till the department of telecommunications or Trai finalises the specific rules governing them. For instance, Trai has allowed operators to provide a fast lane to specialised services but then it has to be done keeping in mind that there’s sufficient bandwidth for normal services. Sharma said that such services should not be offered as a replacement for normal services and they should not compromise on the quality of internet access services.

Explaining the concept of specialised services, he said that these are ones where there cannot be any latency, for example if a surgery is being conducted with remote guidance the process cannot afford any hiccups in bandwidth. “Similar is the case for driverless cars,” Sharma said. However, Trai has simply explained the principle of specialised services and not listed them. It has said that the department of telecommunications as a licensor should list them and from time to time update them. Here’s the catch, according to analysts: Since DoT decides on issues only after taking inputs from Trai, expect a long-drawn process here. A big disappointment here for the telcos is that internet of things as a class of service has not been kept outside the purview of net neutrality but only specialised services within it would be outside its domain. Here also, DoT would define which specialised services.

The other area that has been kept outside net neutrality is content delivery networks, which basically is a sort of tie-up between a telco and network operators like Facebook or YouTube. Trai has said that since content on such networks is quite popular within the country, these networks can set up their servers for consumers within the country in association with mobile operators to improve quality and speed. However, it has warned that such agreements between telcos and network operators should be transparent, shun any anti-competitive measures and properly disclose to the regulator their agreement. Here also Trai has said that it would later frame appropriate regulations to specify the disclosure and transparency requirements. On traffic management, it has allowed telcos leeway in times of emergencies or choking of networks but again said that it would from time to time frame appropriate regulations to specify further details regarding the scope and assessment of reasonable traffic management practices.

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