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TRAI takes net neutrality debate forward, examines models that offer free data benefits

MUMBAI: Taking the net neutrality debate forward, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has issued a consultation paper on ‘Free Data’ to explore models that could offer free data without allowing any telecom service provider (TSP) or large company to play the role of a gatekeeper.

The regulator has suggested various models that could be used by a TSP-agnostic platform, while avoiding the ingenuity that the differential tariff regulation is meant to prevent.

The TRAI paper has mentioned that such models should be explored to facilitate unconnected and under-connected consumers to become better connected and not allow any TSP or large company to play a biased role.

“The model should use the principles of open, transparent and equal access to consumer services by all consumers and all businesses,” TRAI said.

TRAI has provided details of a TSP-agnostic platform to achieve these objectives. One model could be to provide reward to consumers when they download certain applications or carry out some activity on a particular website. The reward could be in the form of a recharge for data or voice usage.

TRAI has given some examples of reward-based models in India, most notably: (1) discovery apps dedicated to providing rewards in exchange for engagement, such as mCent, Gigato, Taskbucks, Ladoo, EarnTalktime and Pokkt; and (2) reward platforms that can enable any app or site to offer rewards for desired action or even mobile data rewards for everyday activities such as paying electricity bills.

Instead of a recharge offer, the other model, prevalent in many developed markets, could be ‘don’t charge’ or a toll-free application programming interface (API). Allowing free access to certain websites and applications, this helps the businesses in making their services easily accessible without impacting the mobile bill of the consumers. The TSP in this case plays a passive role. The platform owner has a business interest to allow any and every content provider making the model neutral.

Subscribers having zero-balance can avail of this facility. In the ‘recharge’ model, mobile users having low or zero balance would be excluded as they need to carry out an action before being rewarded. Also, where recharge is happening based on action, it is hard to know the cost of data for a given user.

The third model suggested by the TRAI is a direct money transfer approach which could be similar to the subsidy payment for domestic LPG connections, wherein the user pays for the connection like any other normal connection and the oil company/government pays the subsidy directly into his/her bank account.

This model, deployed through a TSP-agnostic platform, offers similar benefits as the first two models. However, as in the toll-free model, the telecom service platform owner not only measures the real-time data consumption but also the tariff that is being applied to each individual user and reimburses or recharges actual amount incurred by the user in the form of a recharge for data usage or for voice usage to the user.

The TRAI paper said that there might be a number of other possible solutions to provide free data or suitable reimbursement to users, without violating the principles of differential pricing for data.

The consultation paper has said that the model to be explored should use the principles of open, transparent and equal access to consumer services by all consumers as well as all businesses. TRAI believes that the proposed model should not hold back innovation and the opportunity to increase internet penetration or usage.

TRAI has invited various stakeholders including consumers to respond to questions with regard to free data and a TSP-agnostic platform.

The sector regulator has asked for comments from stakeholders including users regarding three questions with respect to free data.

Primarily, the regulator has asked stakeholders about whether there is a need to have a ‘telecom service provider-agnostic platform’ to provide free data or reimburse users, without violating principles of differential pricing for data laid down earlier by TRAI. The regulator has asked stakeholders to suggest the most suitable model to achieve the same.

Secondly, it has asked stakeholders whether such platforms need to be regulated by TRAI or the market should be allowed to develop these platforms.

Thirdly, TRAI has asked stakeholders to give their views on whether free data or suitable reimbursement to users should be limited to mobile data users only or it could be extended through technical means to subscribers of fixed-line broadband or leased lines.

The regulator has sought written comments on these issues mentioned by 6 June and counter-comments on the same by 30 June.

Click here to read TRAI’s CP