New Delhi: Telecom service providers and net neutrality activists stuck to their stands at an open session hosted by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on differential pricing on Thursday.

The debate has entered its final stage with Trai giving parties until Monday evening to send in additional comments.

In a discussion lasting two-and-a-half hours, telcos on Thursday said differential tariff will increase Internet penetration in the country, benefiting consumers in the long run. In addition, it is essential for the growth of the industry, they said.

Activists argued such a practice will create different versions of Internet controlled by the third parties.

“Differential pricing is allowed for voice due to which voice prices have gone down which has benefitted consumers over a period of time. The same thing is true with data," said Amit Mathur, executive senior vice president, regulatory affairs, Reliance Communications. “We are at the inflection point when it comes to data, thus we need support from the regulator." Representatives of Videocon d2h Ltd’s, Telenor ASA and Bharti Airtel Ltd were present at the meeting.

Trai is now in the final stages of putting together its recommendations on differential pricing, which, it said, would be out by the end of this month.

According to an expert, the debate has made the job of the telecom regulatory body harder as any decision is likely to set a precedence in the country.

“No regulator in the world is ready or equipped to deal with this kind of issue," said Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst and chief executive at New Delhi-based Greyhound Research.

Gogia said Trai faced similar problems during the debate on differential pricing for voice services as well, but this time there is a content angle to it which was not the case earlier. “It is something outside the purview of Trai’s day-to-day work, and thus calls for a fresh approach to deal with the issue," he added.

Trai, which put up the consultation paper on differential pricing on 9 December, asked four specific questions, broadly on whether telecom operators should be allowed to offer different services at different price points and models that can be implemented to achieve that.

Trai extended the deadline for comments and counter comments on its consultation paper to 7 January and 14 January from 31 December and 7 January respectively.

The service providers argued that the existing legal framework is sufficient for regulating and monitoring differential pricing measures provided by the service providers and that Trai can deal with any issue regarding anti-competitive practices on a case-by-case basis as and when they arise. Net neutrality activists maintained their position that differential pricing should not be allowed at all as it will create different versions of the same internet. “We are not against giving access, but access is different from access to few services. And access to few services is not access to the Internet," said Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama.

“What we need to do is bring down the cost of access, which is possible in so many other ways. Why should we choose the worst possible option to achieve that goal?" Pahwa said earlier the service providers wanted to go for interconnection charges, but when that did not happen, they started rallying for differential pricing for data. “If differential pricing is allowed, telecom service providers (TSPs) will create third party platforms on their own terms, which will change the very nature of the Internet," Pahwa said. “It is important to keep the Internet as it is."

Deepali Liberhan, India and South Asia public policy manager for Facebook Inc., said that as a company, Facebook remains “committed to connect people and we hope Trai can come up with innovative models that expand access and bring people online such as Free Basics, which is non-discriminatory."

Vijay Shekhar Sharma of One97 Communications Ltd, the parent company of e-commerce firm Paytm, said while differential pricing should be allowed, service providers should not be the judge of what services users can and cannot use, since they could be biased toward services.

“The onus of that should be on the regulator," Sharma said.

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