The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), India’s telecom regulator, ruled in favour of net neutrality on Monday, making it clear that the South Asian nation would not allow Internet service providers to charge differently for different kinds of data.
As per the new guidelines, telecom companies in India can no longer subsidise in-house content or strike deals with application providers for giving their services free or at discount. Or else, they will have to pay a penalty of INR 50,000 per day, with a cap of INR 50,000,000. However, service providers will be allowed to reduce tariffs in case of emergency services.
Apart from taking a strong stand against technology companies that plan to use zero-rating of data as a means of entrenching and expanding their market share, the Indian telecom regulator also defined crucial terminology that will be useful in the coming years. The historic move means that Facebook’s Free Basics application will not be allowed in India.
It was India’s first official attempt to define how net neutrality would be upheld in the country. In a statement, TRAI said that it laid down rules to strictly prohibit the differential pricing of data on the basis of content in India. The move effectively banned zero-rating initiatives, like Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel’s Airtel Zero programme.
The TRAI clearly stated: “No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content. Further, no service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement… that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content.” Last year, Free Basics and Airtel Zero triggered a controversy, saying that net neutrality could hit customers the hardest in the short-run. However, the TRAI rejected the argument.
Experts are of the opinion that subscribers become the winners, as they can spend data packs as they want and they would not have to pay more for services, like Youtube and WhatsApp. Web-based start-ups will also get level playing field, as they would not have to shell out extra to reach consumers. On the contrary, telecom companies are the big losers, as they cannot charge extra for select services. They also lose flexibility in structuring data plans. It means that Facebook’s Free Basics is virtually dead in India now.
As expected, the Indian political parties have welcomed TRAI’s ruling, saying that the move has ensured equal access to Internet for everybody. Even, inventor of World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee lauded TRAI’s ruling. He tweeted: “Well done India! Passes strong #netneutrality rules, stands up for open Web.” However, Facebook, whose aggressive pitch for its Free Basics service had also seen it engage in a battle of words with TRAI, said that it was disappointed with the order. Facebook issued a statement, saying: “While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet.”