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Net neutrality: What is it that can be offered for free?

editorials Updated: May 20, 2016 19:53 IST
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India

Free and fast internet for all Indians. Is that possible forever?

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has rolled out a new consultation paper, titled ‘Consultation Paper on Free Data’. This paper is third in the series of consultation papers that TRAI has rolled out since April last year with the intention to find a workable solution to the issue of increasing internet access in the country while preventing the throttling of content that is accessible through some platforms controlled by telecom service providers (TSPs), also known as the ‘net neutrality’ issue.

To understand the premise of this paper we need to take a step back and look into the two papers before this one. The paper on ‘Regulatory framework for Over-the-top (OTT) Services’ asked the question, ‘Who will pay for what is offered for free?’ and in the paper on ‘Differential Pricing for Data Services’, TRAI asked, ‘How to pay for what is offered for free?’. The first paper saw vibrant public debate around the issue that, while TSPs are investing in putting up physical infrastructure for the growth of mobile internet, application providers are piggybacking on this infrastructure without adding any value or investing in it. The paper on ‘Differential Pricing’ not only saw a public debate but was also instrumental in pushing through a regulation that effectively banned differential pricing by TSPs and put Facebook’s Free Basics platform on the back burner. In the light of these two papers, the paper of ‘Free Data’ finally seems to ask, ‘What is it that can be offered for free?’

The paper reiterates the understanding that allowing TSPs to act as gate-keepers and regulators of content on their platforms is not the way forward for the growth of internet in India. It perceives such platforms and pricing models to be anti-competitive and against the spirit of innovation that the internet brings with it. It also expresses apprehension about letting the control of internet in the hands of TSPs. It however goes on to point out that there is still a need to have in place a TSP-agnostic platform that can give equal access to everyone and allows small entrepreneurs to reach out to consumers and give them more choice in an online ecosystem. TRAI believes that such a platform is necessary for the growth of internet based services like e-commerce, e-payments in the country.

In its entirety, the idea of ‘Free Data’ appears to present data as a public good, a good that one individual can consume without reducing its availability to another individual and from which no one is excluded. Economists refer to public goods as “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable”. All the models presently in play introduce some or the other element of exclusion, whether it be excluding all users of a platform from accessing a certain service or excluding a certain service from been accessed by users unless they pay more for it. By looking for a model for ‘Free Data’, TRAI is looking for a model that will allow all users to access all content across all platforms, for Free. It is obvious that in a market driven system such a model is unsustainable in the long run. Hence the paper proposes certain alternatives like

-Reward-based model: Whenever users access a website/application from the ‘TSP agnostic’ platform they will be rewarded in form of data/voice usage. There is no clarity in the paper on how users who have not yet been connected to mobile internet through smart phones can use such a platform that rewards ‘after’ using a service. Also, this model misses out on the fact that a user would need to pay to be online with sufficient ‘data balance’ to use such a model.

*Toll-free API: This is an alternative that would allow users access to all content from the platform but not charge them for ‘access to certain websites and applications’. This seems like a watered down version of Facebook’s Free Basics and the paper claims that such models are existing in many developed countries without going into further details.

*To conclude, the paper asks for inputs on whether such a TSP agnostic platform is needed to provide free data (or suitable reimbursement) to users, without violating the principles of Differential Pricing for data laid down by TRAI. It also asks if such a platform needs to be regulated by TRAI or should the market be allowed to self-regulate it.

But it is the last question that brings an entirely new dimension to the discussion. It asks if such a platform should be limited only for mobile users or should it be extended to subscribers of fixed line broadband or leased line as well. This ‘Free Data’ focused growth model for internet in India is a risky preposition as it entails behavioral changes that will be hard to reverse once they morph into a benefit-seeking mindset. The TRAI would do well to stay away from it in the long term. It should instead focus on enabling last mile growth of fixed line broadband so that it can be channelized to provide public Wi-Fi hotspots and other such services that will enable the yet un-connected and under-connected to access the possibilities of the internet without TSPs playing gatekeepers to their aspirations.

(The author is a policy analyst in the information security and data privacy domain. The views expressed are personal.)