Back in November 2017, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had issued its recommendations on net neutrality asking the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to specifically restrict any kind of discrimination to internet access.
Close to eight months later, the Telecom Commission (TC), the highest decision-making body in the DoT has finally agreed to adopt the framework, disallowing internet service providers (ISPs) to block, throttle or grant higher speeds to certain services or online content.
The recommendations will now be put before the Cabinet for a final approval but it does currently give India the strongest net neutrality regulations in the world.
As per a report by The Wire, there are certain exceptions though and these include 'critical IoT services' and certain specialised services like autonomous driving and remote surgery operations.
These exceptions were left broad by TRAI while recommending the framework back in November and have since drawn a fair bit of criticism. TRAI's boss R S Sharma was not able to detail the different types of services included in these categories but provided examples of remote surgery operations on ambulances, autonomous vehicles and "services where the quality of service is essential.”
Telecom secretary, Aruna Sunderajan, stated that a detailed copy enlisting the categories of critical services, will be notified the DoT, so we will be more clear on that end in time.
As per the recommendations, license conditions for ISPs and telecom providers will be amended to add rules on net neutrality and providers have to agree to them when they sign these agreements with the DoT. Any violations after signing the agreement could see license agreements being cancelled.
How does it affect consumers?
Looking at positives, internet providers will no longer be able to throttle download speeds as compared to streaming or browsing speeds. They also won't be able to allocate faster speeds to certain apps and services while leaving out others. So for example, your Netflix streaming speeds will now be the same as those on say a YouTube video or a video on Facebook.
I'm told that Telecom Commission has accepted @TRAI 's recommendations on #NetNeutrality. Thank you TRAI& @rssharma3 for giving India the strongest Net Neutrality regulations in the world,covering both throttling of Internet access & prevention of discriminatory pricing
— Nikhil Pahwa (@nixxin) July 11, 2018
There are loopholes as well though. As mentioned by Nikhil Pahwa in a report on Medianama, a closer reading reveals that licensed VoIP (which includes services like Airtel Talk) and IPTV (video streaming) services may also be exempt on grounds that they are licensed services. This means that streaming and Internet-based calling services that are operated under a license may be given a preference in speed allocation over non-licensed services. For example, an Airtel Talk VoIP may have a higher data bandwidth allocation than WhatsApp's calling service.
What do telecom providers and ISPs have to say?
The Cellular Operation Association of India (COAI), which is the lobby body for providers, expressed its concerns over the idea of traffic prioritisation and feel that it will hamper innovation, especially in the field of 5G.
Its quite telling what the telecom industry lobby is saying via COAI: they appear to be flagging that the Union Cabinet needs to approve what the Telecom Commission @DoT_India has cleared today & are lobbying there for "light touch regulation" — Raman Chima (@tame_wildcard) July 11, 2018
Rajan S Mathews, the director general of COAI in a statement to The Wire said, "Now that the commission has approved the recommendations, which are before the Cabinet for approval, we hope that the Cabinet will consider the concerns raised by the industry so that the Net Neutrality rules that are adopted in India benefit the consumers, incentivise innovation and adoption of new technologies."
The COAI essentially believes that 5G-enabled applications should be added to the list of exceptions, to fuel innovation and in time better adoption of newer technology.