Trai: How is India's telecom regulator faring in its commitment towards better quality of service?

A round up of all the regulations and consultations by Trai, and their current statuses.

Access to a high speed and dependable internet connection is a persistent demand from Indian citizens. The challenge here is to give access to education, healthcare and banking services to the underserved. Trai has been taking a number of steps to improve the situation, but this is a continuous process that starts with the rollout of 4G for mobile devices, and goes on to terrestrial wi-fi systems, backhaul networks using microwave transmission, Internet of Things and smart cities. Quality of service and coverage are major concerns when it comes to telephony. Last mile connectivity, regulations for cloud services and connection quality are issues for wired broadband services. Here is a round up of all of its ongoing efforts.

Differential pricing and Net Neutrality
Differential pricing has been a touchy topic between Trai and service providers. Trai banned differential pricing after a controversy erupted over zero rated schemes by Airtel and Facebook. While zero rated schemes violate the principles of net neutrality, they do give access to the most used services and web sites to the underserved, for free. Telecom service providers threatened to go to court to overrule the ban. After banning differential pricing, Trai issued a consultation paper to exploit the benefits of free internet, but exploring ways and means to allow more people to get connected without compromising on the principles of Net Neutrality.

Consumer Watchdog and hacktivism campaign organisers launched a new campaign that suggested some ways in which free internet could be provided without compromising the net neutrality principles. These include tiered pricing with a free tier for low speed connectivity, providing data to consumers in exchange for watching commercials and freemium subscriptions where a limited amount of data usage is initially given away for free.

Industry bodies claim the ban hurts innovation and competition. The stance of the Industry is that apps and services should be allowed to decide on free data and how that data is going to be used. In EU, telecom operators claim that net neutrality regulations are holding back the roll out of 5G.

 Trai: How is Indias telecom regulator faring in its commitment towards better quality of service?

Regulatory tweaks to make internet cheaper 
Trai pulled an ace out of its sleeve when it analysed usage patterns of new internet users and found that the low period of validity for mobile internet plans contributed to the cost of internet being prohibitive. It has issued a consultation paper with a simple tweak that would potentially allow the retention of new internet users on mobile, post an initial trial period. The problem was that new users had low internet usage, and the internet packs were valid only for 90 days.

The entire quoata of the data allocated for use over these 90 days was not getting used up, which made access to internet costly for these users. It also meant that new internet users would not continue to use the internet after the initial trial period. Now, Trai plans to extend the validity of internet packs to an entire year, which would allow more new internet users to enjoy surfing at lower prices.

My Speed App 
Trai launched the My Speed application on the Play store, and the MySeva store to measure and collect wireless and wired broadband speeds from across the nation. This is a crowdsourced method of collecting network performance information. The application is very simple, and without any settings. Users can log their speedtests with Trai directly through the application, but these are not in themselves, considered complaints over the quality of service. No personally identifiable information is collected by the application.


Quality of Service
Following consumer complaints of call drops, Trai has issued a consultation paper aiming to tighten the call drop benchmark, which is currently at 2%. Trai initially wanted to impose a penalty on telecom servicec providers over call drops. Telecom service providers claimed that such a penalty would put undue pressure on the sector. The Superme Court ruled that the call drop penality would be axed. This ruling stood to benefit the telecom service providers.

Trai has been conducting surprise quality of service drive by tests across the nation, and is regularly publishing these results. These results have details on the agency conducting the tests as the range of the tests. Voice quality, mobility, dropped call rates, connection rates, and accessibility results across providers over multiple technologies are being made transparently available to everyone. So far, Trai has conducted tests in ThiruvananthapuramRanchi, Darjeeling, Sikkim, Kanpur, Lucknow, Ahmedabad and Mumbai.

The telecom service providers have all the information needed on which tower gets how much traffic, and where call drops are more likely to happen. The Airtel Open network looks like an initiative to make this information transparently available to it's consumers.

One of the problems that cause the call drop issue is the random takedown of towers across the country over radiation fears. These towers are dismantled, covered up, or the electricity supply discontinued.  These towers are expensive investment for service providers, and can take more than a year to be replaced. There are no current guidelines to regulate deployment of infrastructure in dense urban areas. Coverage in malls, hospitals and stadium is set to improve with this consultation paper.


In building access
Currently there are no regulations to cover in building access to telecom service providers to deploy infrastructure. The problem is that builders may collude with telecom operators to install only one kind of network at a particular building. This can be a mall, a commercial complex or a stadium. Access to competing providers can be artificially restricted.

Additionally, without a set of regulations to specify how much the owners of the building should be charging the telecom service providers for deploying infrastructure on their properties, the service providers are charged arbitrarily, and at times held for ransom with unrealistic prices. This was one of the major roadblocks identified by Telecom service providers, and Trai's consultation paper to regulate in building access to telecom service providers is a good step towards solving this problem.


Regulation of Cloud Services
Trai wants to make sure that consumers can move their personal data from one cloud service provider to another. There are regulations planned for retaining data on the servers after consumers have discontinued the service. Trai also wants to be able to monitor the quality of service offered by these cloud services. For protection of national interests, Trai wants to be able to access the information stored on these cloud services easily.

The protocols, guidelines and standards to be followed by the implementation of cloud services are the issues raised by the consultation. This is important for the Government as it moves to an e-governance platform, and starts offering an increasing number of services to the citizens of India.

Replace PCOs with Wi-Fi hotspots
A public Wi-Fi consultation is a measure to ease consumption of an increasing number of data on mobile devices through telecom service providers. At a grassroot level, Trai wants to replace public call offices with small businesses hosting public Wi-Fi hotspots. This is a move meant to benefit local shopkeepers and unemployed youth. When implemented, this would significantly reduce the load and revenues of telecom service providers, and free up spectrum space for other uses. This could expose consumers to significant risks if they are not careful, as open Wi-Fi networks are particularly susceptible to malicious attacks, including interception of data and man in the middle attacks.

Public W-Fi hotspots is a necessary step in the evolution of the internet. This will allow for a whole range of applications and services, including internet of things, smart cities, collection of big data, connected cars and pave the way for 5G rollout. Trai is a little late in its willingness to think about this, there have been public Wi-Fi networks in other countries active for over six years now.


Digital Terrestrial Broadcasting
Trai wants to replace the ancient analog terrestrial broadcasting stations with more modern digital terrestrial transmission. This will allow for a number of innovative new uses, especially beneficial to remote rural areas. The signals are less susceptible to interference. The energy requirements for digital transmission is lower. It will allow for broadcasts to mobile devices and devices in moving vehicles. The most significant aspect is that digital terrestrial broadcasting is much more effecient when it comes to spectrum use as compared to analog transmission. This means that the unused spectrum can be repurposed for other uses.

The Consultation Process
Trai works primarily by issuing consultation papers to receive responses from all interested stakeholders. These consultation papers typically list out challenges to broadband connectivity, and how the problem has been approached in different nations around the world. There are a list of questions posed to interested stakeholders. Stakeholders, including internet service providers, telecom service providers, associations of service providers, consumer watchdogs and cable providers respond to the consultation papers with suggestions.

Often these responses highlight problems that lead to new consultation papers. For example, a consultation paper on the quality of service noting call drops being an issue, gets a response from an association of telecom service providers over the difficulty of installing infrastructure in urban areas. This leads Trai to issue a fresh consultation paper on regularising installation of infrastructure in dense urban areas.

At times there is a pre-consultation paper as well. The time given to respond to consultation papers is typically extended by a fortnight to a month.

Time extended for responses
The entire consultation process is drawn out, where there is discussion on new and innovative ideas, but typically it takes a long time for consumers to see any tangible changes. The consultation papers on in building access, public Wi-Fi networks, Telecom consumer protection regulations, cloud computing, digital terrestrial transmission, internet telephony, infrastructure sharing in broadcast TV, Net Neutrality and Free Data have all extended the amount of time the issue remains open for consultation, and is actively seeking responses from stakeholders.


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