A department of telecommunications (DoT) internal committee has recommended that zero-rating plans (allowing telcos to ask websites to pay them so that consumers can access their websites for free) are not a violation of the principle of Net neutrality, two senior officials aware of the development said.
At the same time, the committee has also urged that the government should adopt the policy of Net neutrality as it is globally defined. Access to the Internet should be without any prioritization, with no throttling or discrimination being tolerated, one of the officials said on condition of anonymity.
The committee submitted its 100-page report to communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Thursday, the official said.
“If it (the committee) has decided to okay zero rating, then it’s terrible and very disappointing. It creates a situation where if one company signs up, then it forces its rivals to sign up as well, or they will be at a competitive disadvantage,” said Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of Medianama.com and a Net neutrality activist.
“It opens up a back door for telcos to charge carriage fees from websites. The other problem is that people tend to use free stuff more. There is a fixed amount of bandwidth. The free websites and apps will pull most of the bandwidth, leaving little for the rest of the web. It becomes a form of prioritization and changes the way the Internet functions,” he said.
Pahwa added that zero rating could in no way be compared to a toll-free number. “A toll-free number is a sort of support service. A person can do without a toll-free number. But zero rating creates a situation where one cannot do without it and that’s terrible. They (DoT) need to protect the start-up space and this move does not do that.”
With regard to zero-rating plans, the committee has also taken the view that since they are essentially tariff-related, the final call has to be taken by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), which is the last word on tariffs for the telecom sector.
The DoT committee, headed by adviser (technology) A.K. Bhargav, has based its recommendations largely on the lines of the Federal Communications Commission in the US, which ruled that zero-rating be treated as sponsored data, and complaints be looked into on a case-to-case basis.
Prasad has, on a number of occasions, reiterated that the government is firmly in favour of completely non-discriminatory access to the Internet, and is looking to amend relevant licence conditions to ensure that Net neutrality is maintained.
In fact, telecom secretary Rakesh Garg went so far as to state: “Net neutrality says as far as the consumer is concerned, whatever is online should come at the same price. It should not be dependent on any plan. The way Net neutrality is understood, it (the launch of zero-rating platforms) violates those principles.”
This comment led to the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the key lobby group of Indian telcos, writing to him expressing concern.
The debate over Net neutrality and its potential threats kicked off as it were with Bharti Airtel’s 6 April announcement of Airtel Zero. This is a zero-rating plan that allows apps and websites to pay the telco so that consumers can access them for free. The launch came four months after Airtel pulled its plan to offer differential pricing for its data users, based on their usage of voice over Internet protocol apps such as Skype.
Airtel said it was withdrawing the plan as Trai was going to start a consultation on over-the-top (OTT) apps such as Skype and WhatsApp, that essentially offer the same services as the telcos, but don’t have to follow the same rules such as revenue sharing with the government and obtaining security clearances.