A recommendation regarding free data made by India’s telecoms regulator drew sharp criticism from mobile operators and net neutrality advocates, who argue a proposed “aggregation model” adds unnecessary complexity and resembles zero rating offers.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on Monday suggested two ways of providing free data: the government can give rural subscribers 100MB of data per month each, with the cost subsidised by the universal service obligation fund; or third-party aggregators can give away free data provided they are open to all operators and conform to the rules barring discriminatory pricing, The Economic Times (ET) reported.
TRAI chairman RS Sharma insisted the recommendations conform to the principles of net neutrality and don’t violate any clauses of discriminatory banning of data services. “The idea was to formalise a structure to provide free data to consumers in accordance with the principles of net neutrality,” Sharma told the ET.
“We haven’t permitted any exclusive relationship between a telecoms service provider and a content provider. If a content provider wants to provide free data, it will have to team up with all service providers,” Sharma explained.
In February TRAI ruled against differential data pricing following a national debate and furious lobbying by supporters and opponents of Facebook’s Free Basics’ zero rating service. A body representing leading operators pressed the regulator in May to lift the ban, citing a lack of clarity in rules.
The Cellular Operators Association of India said TRAI should use existing frameworks to boost data usage in rural areas, which is “already the role of providers as per existing licence norms, instead of complicating matters further”, the ET reported.
Net neutrality backers complain that the free data aggregator rules could create a non-level playing field by permitting app providers and websites to offer free data to all operators, which could create entry barriers for smaller players if they are unable to pay the specified rate, thus leading to a monopoly by the large providers, the newspaper said.
The Department of Telecom will review the recommendations and could send them back to TRAI for clarification.