By Naina Khedekar
In the last few months, the debate had shifted from net neutrality to a 'differential pricing'. While TRAI has been adamant over not relating the two terms, the issue is, in essence, the same. The new announcement is a commendable move, and no differential pricing means no varying pricing for Internet services. Here are 10 pointers on how TRAI struck down differential pricing.
Floating a consultation paper
Last year, TRAI floated a consultation paper seeking views on whether differential pricing should be allowed, amidst the whole net neutrality debate. The regulator wanted to know what steps should be taken to ensure that the principles of non-discrimination, affordable Internet access, competition and so on are followed if differential pricing is to be allowed.
Trying to focus on differential pricing
Right from the beginning, TRAI wanted to look at differential pricing as a single entity, not relating it to net neutrality or any other term. TRAI quickly put out a statement saying the paper issued is not on net neutrality, but on the specific matter of differential pricing. When it received responses, pointing to the massive and infamous Facebook Free Basics campaign, it mentioned that some users were only talking about 'Free Basics', which was unrelated to the questions being addressed by the paper.
Putting existing operations related to differential pricing on hold
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) asked Reliance Communications (RCom) to put Facebook’s Free Basics service on hold. The report quotes a senior government official as saying, “We have asked them (Reliance Communications) to stop it [Free Basics] and they have given us a compliance report that it has been stopped.”
Looking at responses diligently
TRAI reportedly received 24 lakh responses to its consultation paper on differential pricing for data services. Out of these, 13.5 lakh were apparently sent via supportfreebasics.com and 5.44 lakh comments via facebookmail.com. Around 4.84 lakh comments came via forums such as Save the Internet. TRAI said that most of them were in support for a ‘specific product, Free Basics’, even though the paper ‘hadn’t raised any such specific product’. The counter comments were to be filed by 14 January.
Not believing that differential pricing is important for growth
Telcos had tried very hard to convince TRAI that differential pricing can be beneficial in the long run. In a joint representation submitted to telecom regulator TRAI through industry bodies Cellphone Operators Association of India (COAI) and Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India (AUSPI), telecom operators said differential pricing schemes should be non-discriminatory. In its submissions to TRAI, the industry bodies claimed that price differentiation for data services can be allowed for the growth of data service.
Repeatedly looking at what people, organisations and panel have to say
There were many voices for and against differential pricing and TRAI heard them all! For instance, IAMAI had also voiced against differential pricing. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) had said that different pricing models mentioned in the consultation paper of TRAI not only violate the core principles of TRAI’s pricing regulation but also the principles of net neutrality. In another case, it slammed Facebook over how it cannot take a self-appointed spokesman's role on behalf of those who have sent responses to TRAI using Facebook's platform. It also pointed out that the social giant has not been authorised by its users to speak on behalf of them collectively.
Seeking counter comments to the 24 lakh responses
TRAI said it received 21 comments from individuals and organisations countering 24 lakh submissions over its paper on differential pricing of data, believed to be a key aspect of net neutrality. The regulator said it will take a final call by the end of January.
Slamming Facebook's 'wholly misplaced' campaign
Facebook's Ankhi Das had alleged that TRAI’s office blocked email from Facebook's mail service that people were using to share their comments on differential pricing. In response to Facebook’s letter, K V Sebastian, Joint Advisor (F&EA), issued a letter stating that Facebook’s standard template doesn’t address the issues raised in the consultation paper. He shot back at Facebook wondering why Facebook took so long to rake up the issue if the responses were blocked. He also pointed out that when dealing with a similar issue, TRAI took steps to immediately rectify the problem and again questioned Facebook's reason for the delay. He also went so far as to call Facebook's campaign a 'crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll' and a completely misplaced campaign.
An open house discussion
TRAI allowed an open house discussion on the consultation paper around differential pricing for data services with representatives from Internet companies, civil society organizations, industry bodies, and telecom companies to share their comments.
Hefty penalties for defaulters
TRAI stated that "no service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered on basis of content", which effectively eliminates all subsidised data services and similar packages that offer "free" access to specific content like WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. The only exemption to the rule would be access to emergency services or "at times of public emergency".
Any violation of the above rule would lead to a penalty of at least Rs.50,000 per day and service providers will be provided with a six month window to ensure that their services are in compliance with the ruling.
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