While the debate around Net neutrality in India seems to have been settled for now, Internet activists and telecom companies could be at loggerheads very soon once again.
Except that this time, there hasn’t been half as much noise from Internet users—or in the media—as there was in the case of Facebook’s Free Basics plan.
On 10 February, two days after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) struck down Free Basics, Bharti Airtel Ltd contended that telecom firms should be allowed to curb speed to 64 kilobits per second (kbps) in fair usage plans (FUPs).
This was in response to a Trai consultation paper that recommended, among other things, that download speed in a broadband connection should not be below 512kbps. FUPs are data plans in which users get unlimited amounts of data use. The catch, though, is that the speed decelerates after a certain point. The idea is to ensure that a few people with large bandwidths don’t impair the Internet experience for other people.
Airtel argued that “customers misuse the minimum broadband speed provision and tend to overuse the data limit in their quota", which it claimed, led to higher costs for other customers. It said Trai should not set a minimum speed threshold, and if it must, it should be fixed at 64kbps. Reliance Communications Ltd also opposed Trai’s recommendation, saying “in case of fair usage plans, the subscriber remains into broadband services till the expiry of his assigned quota". It added that a service provider should be provided the freedom to throttle the speed “in order to avoid any misuse of the broadband service".
Industry bodies Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India and the Cellular Operators Association of India backed the telecom firms. “It cannot be the prerogative of the customer to keep on accessing data at the defined broadband speed," their statement said.
The SaveTheInternet coalition, run by a group of Internet activists, in a response to the consultation paper proposed a change in the definition of broadband. Currently, the minimum broadband speed mandated by Trai is 512kbps. The group said it should be raised to 4 megabits per second (Mbps), referring to a recent study by Akamai that surveyed broadband speeds in a number of countries and found India’s to be among the worst.
Trai’s consultation paper, with only 19 individual counter responses, hasn’t quite elicited the kind of response as the one on Net neutrality, in spite of it being likely to affect pretty much anyone with a broadband connection. “This happened at the around the same time as the Net neutrality verdict, so it seems people missed in amid the celebrations," said Kiran Jonnalagadda, part of SaveTheInternet. Jonnalagadda called the telecom firms’ contention “ridiculous".
Why haven’t people protested in large numbers, though? “The media hasn’t picked it up yet, but the Internet has," he remarked.
Sunil Abraham of the Benglauru-based Centre for Internet and Society said it was “anti-consumer" to throttle speed to 64kbps. “Basically, telcos are using the excuse of the fringe phenomenon of bandwidth hogs to gouge all consumers. The regulator must ensure that the broadband connection is fast enough so that it can still be used for average usage such as video streaming, video calls, etc. even after the FUP limit has been crossed," he said.
Meanwhile, Internet forums like Reddit are witnessing a flurry of hostile comments against Airtel. And that is any gauge of public sentiment, Airtel may find itself in the same situation as Facebook, which recently received much flak for its Free Basics initiative, which critics said violated Net neutrality.