Trai recommends limited free data to subscribers in rural India to bridge the digital divide

The measure is to realise the vision of Digital India, to increase access to electronic banking, healthcare, education and governance services.

Trai has issued a recommendation of providing free data to those living in rural India. Such a measure is needed to realise the vision of Digital India where critical services such as healthcare, banking, education and governance are provided through electronic services. It is also the need of the hour considering the push to a cashless economy in the wake of the demonetisation of high value currency notes.

In May 2016, Trai issued a consultation paper on free data, which asked for inputs from stakeholders on the policy decisions needed around service providers bundling access to certain web sites at a subsidised rate. Smaller service providers were worried about net neutrality being compromised, which was a concern common with users, who launched a hacktivism campaign to save the internet. Trai banned differential tariffs, including schemes such as Free Basics by Facebook and Airtel Zero in what was lauded as a historic decision that defended net neutrality in India.

The recommendation from Trai of provisioning free data does not violate the regulations of non discriminatory pricing, and hopes to provide a basic amount of free data to all users, including those in rural areas. The data suggested is around 100 MB per month, but that may be tweaked as per requirements. The cost of providing the data will be borne by the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).

The internet is considered too costly for the vast majority of the rural population. Trai took steps to ease the burden by allowing data packs to be valid for a year. Rural users would purchase data, and not use up the allocated data within the validity of the pack, increasing the cost for the user. There is inadequate internet infrastructure in rural areas as well. These concerns together present a strong case for providing support to remote and rural areas through the USOF.

Trai is also looking at aggregators, or third party application and service providers to find ways to find schemes that are service provider agnostic and do not circumvent the regulations against discriminatory pricing. The proposed mechanism for getting aggregators to incentivise data is as follows: The content provider or aggregator must register directly with Trai, and be a company registered under the Indian Companies Act. The registered company is not allowed to transfer the registration, and the period of registration will be five years.

Trai hopes that allowing free data services will increase digital inclusion especially for those living in remote and rural areas, stimulate spending on telecommunication services, and lead to greater innovation in content and services. The recommendation can be accessed here (PDF).

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