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TRAI seeks views on differential pricing for data services

MUMBAI: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has flagged the issue of net neutrality for the second time, by releasing a consultation paper on ‘Differential Pricing for Data Services’ for comments of the stakeholders.

According to TRAI, differential tariffs results in classification of subscribers based on the content they want to access (those who want to access non-participating content will be charged at a higher rate than those who want to access participating content).

This, the authority contended, may potentially go against the principle of non-discriminatory tariff.

Therefore, the potential benefits and disadvantages of such practices have to be weighed in order to determine the regulatory approach, it added.

The authority has sought stakeholders’ comments on three questions. The first question is whether the telecom service providers (TSPs) must be allowed to have differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications, or platforms.

The second question posed by the authority is if differential pricing for data usage is permitted, what measures should be adopted to ensure that the principles of non-discrimination, transparency, affordable internet access, competition, market entry and innovation are addressed.

The authority has also asked the stakeholders whether there are there alternative methods/technologies/business models, other than differentiated tariff plans, to achieve the objective of providing free internet access to the consumers.

The stakeholders must also describe the potential benefits and disadvantages associated with such methods/technologies/business models.

The last day for furnishing written comments on the consultation paper is 30 December. Counter-comments can be sent by 7 January.

In March, the authority had issued a consultation paper on the regulatory framework for over-the-top (OTT) services amid debate whether services like Airtel Zero and Facebook’s Internet.org violated the principles of net neutrality.

Giving the background to the new consultation paper, the authority said that the past few years have witnessed tremendous growth in data usage and quite a large number of data tariff offers are made available by the service providers.

The current regulatory guidelines on discrimination and transparency in tariff offers were more focused to address the regulatory concerns in voice telephony, it stated.

The growth of data usage and the manner in which data schemes are being designed by service providers currently call for a relook at the regulatory principles of non-discriminatory tariff and transparency measures in the context of data tariff offers, the authority averred.

The authority said that some TSPs are offering differential data tariff with free or discounted tariffs to certain contents of certain websites/applications/platforms.

The objective of offering such schemes is claimed to be the desire of various service providers/content providers or platform providers to enable the consumers, especially the poor, to access certain content on the internet free of charge.

It noted that there are positive and negative effects from an economic and regulatory perspective in cases where reduced rates are tied to specific content.

On the one hand, it appears to make overall internet access more affordable by reducing costs of certain types of content, but on the other hand, several negative effects might ensue, the regulator said.

The authority said that roughly 25 per cent of the total wireless subscribers use wireless data (internet) services in India. There were about 300 million wireless internet subscribers in the country as on 30 June.

Out of this subscriber base, about 207 million subscribers use 2G networks to access the internet. Another 92 million subscribers use 3G while the rest are 4G LTE subscribers.

The average data usage per data user for 2G service is about 200 MB per month and the average data usage per data user for 3G service is about 800 MB per month.