TRAI is set to release its final consultation paper on free data by the end of the month along with a pre-consultation paper on net neutrality, suggest media reports. In May, the regulator had released an initial consultation paper on free data asking shareholders to weigh in with their thoughts.
This followed an earlier ruling banning discriminatory pricing by Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) on the basis of content. Basically, TRAI did not want TSPs to start controlling prices charged to consumers. In fact, even the free data pre-consultation paper talks clearly about the possibility of setting up a “TSP agnostic” platform which rewards consumers with free data or other suitable reimbursements.
This has now become a bone of contention between proponents of a free internet and the major TSPs, with the latter arguing that a platform such as this is not required.
“(However) the proposal for creation of TSP agnostic platform may not be the right step to achieve this end objective. Such platforms add an unnecessary additional layer between the content providers, TSPs and the consumers that can result in additional costs and lower efficiencies, no clear ownership for consumer grievances. The delegation of pricing flexibility from licensed TSPs to a third party platform owner will have additional costs and would be counter-productive to the objective of affordable internet for all under the Digital India vision,” said industry body ASSOCHAM in a statement.
The majority of the big TSPs have also commented in a similar line, with the common theme being that a third-party platform will not be under the control of the TRAI. For example, Aircel, in its statement said, “The TSP agnostic platforms or any model providing pricing/discounts mechanism to 3rd party content providers, as being deliberated through the instant consultation paper, is against the principles held by TRAI while issuing the last regulation i.e. Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016 dated 08.02.2016.”
TRAI has suggested three models in its consultation paper and had asked views on the feasibility of each--one, a toll-free platform for users where browsing will be free, two, consumers paying upfront and subsequently reimbursed, and three, applications that reward users with incentives such as recharge for data or voice usage.
However, with TSPs unhappy about letting third party content providers become gatekeepers of any potential platform and proponents of net neutrality unready to trust TSPs to play the same role, the matter seems far from over.