If Indian telecom service providers, or telcos, thought it would be business as usual after the spectrum auctions ended on 25 March, they were in for a nasty surprise. Thousands of Internet users and activists in India took them to task online in early April, to protest the violation of Net neutrality principles. They were reacting to Bharti Airtel Ltd’s Zero plan and the 20 questions raised by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai) in its 27 March consultation paper on a regulatory framework for so-called over-the-top (OTT) services.

Trai’s questions included whether OTT services providers (such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Line and Hike) should be brought under the licensing regime; on payment for use of the telcos’ networks over and above the data charges paid by consumers; and whether telcos should be allowed to implement non-price based discrimination of services.

Net neutrality principles, however, rule that Internet service providers (ISPs) should not discriminate on online data by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment or mode of communication. And the zero-rating plan, if designed to favour an ISP’s own or its partner’s app or company, can place competing apps and companies at a disadvantage, be anti-competitive and violate Net neutrality principles.

The protests even prompted minister of communications and information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad (@rsprasad) to tweet on 7 April: “...#Internet…belongs to entire humanity and not to a few. #NetNeutrality"—a tweet that assumes significance, given the country is yet to devise a law specific to Net neutrality.

Bowing to pressure from the uproar on Twitter and Facebook, India’s largest online retailer Flipkart Ltd on 14 March ended talks with Bharti Airtel to participate in the Airtel Zero plan. Airtel, too, issued a statement that very day, saying it “fully supports the concept of Net neutrality", and adding that it did not “block" or “throttle" or provide “any form of preferential access".

On 15 April, travel portal Cleartrip.com and media companies Times Group and NDTV followed suit and logged out of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, even as Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of the world’s largest social networking site, attempted to defend his position in sections of the media.

Critics argued zero-rating plans and Trai’s questions (in its 117-page document) have the potential to kill technology innovation by regulation and splitting the Internet into two halves, with a segment of the online population being cajoled to access the Internet only through specific zero-rating plans of telcos and social networking sites with a scheme such as Internet.org.

On 16 April, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, member of Parliament and technology entrepreneur, wrote to Prasad, saying the Trai consultation paper “is both confusing and somewhat restrictive...Trai can only make recommendations under Section 11 of the Trai Act. Eventually, it is the committee on Net neutrality within DoT (department of telecommunications) and, finally, the Telecom Commission (TC), which will need to expand the scope of examination and discussion on the very crucial issue of network neutrality."

Meanwhile, about a million Internet users (India has a little over 300 million Internet users) are estimated to have emailed their responses to Trai as on 24 April. About 300,000 users, till the time of going to press, have signed a petition on change.org, petitioning Trai and DoT, among others, not to allow “differential pricing of services on the Internet and let the consumers choose how they want to use the Internet".

“We telcos get, on average, about 15% of our revenue from data services, but these OTT services utilize about 50% of the data capacity. Also, telcos typically provide 1MB of data at 25 paise and 1MB of voice at about 1.50— 1MB of voice is roughly equivalent to four minutes of data. Thus, we are keeping data prices artificially low, which is why we make a noise over OTT communication services providers," said a telecom industry executive who did not want to be named since he’s not authorized to speak to the media.

“Telcos’ infrastructure already prioritizes certain class of IP (Internet protocol) data on a higher pedestal. For example, the IP packets corresponding to real time services such as voice and video services are given a priority over high latency services such as email and Internet browsing… With the inexorable volume growth for traffic emanating from OTT services…there is a merit to adopt a differential pricing model to actually reflect true demand of OTT services. Else, telcos will inadvertently subsidize OTTs, debasing own competitiveness, lowering their investment in next-generation networks and, eventually, compromising user experience," said Alok Shende, founder-director and principal analyst of Ascentius Consulting.

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