After TRAI’s Nod to Net Neutrality, the Real Work Begins

by Prasanto K Roy    Feb 09, 2016

free basics

Image Caption: Facebook’s Rs 300 crore ‘Free basics’ campaign for across newspapers, TV and outdoor media may have been money down the drain

On February 8, India’s telecom regulator finally put to rest the fiery net neutrality debate in India, ruling against zero rating and differential tariffs.

Zero rating lets Airtel users use Facebook, for instance, free of data charges, while charging for access to other services or websites. This violates net neutrality, which says there should be no differential pricing (free data for one service, but priced for another) based on content or websites. TRAI has now forbidden such ‘discriminatory pricing’ by whatever name it may be called.

The TRAI ruling is clear and sharp, and a blow to Facebook’s high-stakes Free Basics platform, born as Internet.org, as well as to Airtel Zero and other zero-rating platforms tried out, or planned, by telcos.

The year-long battle between the heavyweights, including telecom giants and Facebook, and a group of volunteers under the SaveTheInternet.in banner, was fiery, and seemingly unequal. Facebook ploughed in an estimated Rs 300 crore into its three-month campaign defending Free Basics. Against it, though, the lone volunteer-activists gradually managed to drum up a great deal of public support.

See also: FAQ: Net Neutrality and Free Basics

Facebook was “disappointed with the outcome, but we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings.”  The COAI’s Rajan Mathew was more vocal. In a 150 word statement attributed to director-general Rajan Mathews, it expressed disappointment in this “welfare-reducing measure, blocking a possible avenue for our less-advantaged citizens to move to increased economic growth…We believe that this measure will have an impact on the Government’s ambitious Digital India initiative.” TRAI, he said, has ignored all the benefits of price differentiation…”including improving economic efficiency, increase in broadband penetration, reduction in customer costs and provision of essential services.”

Expectedly, the activists were ecstatic. “This is a historic outcome,” said Kiran Jonnalagadda, a co-founder of the SaveTheInternet.in movement. “”For the first time India leads where the US and Europe will follow. Many thanks to TRAI chairman R S Sharma for backing such an important ruling as his first major act in office.”

The TRAI ruling got widespread applause, including from tech association Nasscom, which had given a submission supporting net neutrality. Its Internet council chairman Sanjeev Bikhchandani said the ruling would “help address apprehensions of young start-ups fearing lack of a level playing field.” Entrepreneur Arvind Jha of TiE said that the collective power of 700 startups (whose founders had written to the PMO supporting Net Neutrality) and a dedicated team of volunteers “won over Facebook’s ad blitzkrieg running into hundreds of crores of rupees.”

But the war isn’t over yet, and not because this issue may yet end up in court.

THE REAL BATTLE: ACCESS FOR A BILLION INDIANS

Have David and the good guys vanquished Goliath, ending the battle?

The reality may be more nuanced than that. And a battle much bigger than activists vs Facebook is up ahead: providing internet access to nearly a billion Indians who are offline, or nominally online, today.

First, the nuances. Facebook is responsible for a great deal of the internet penetration in India. Of the 300 million mobile users who make up over 90% of India’s internet base, 56% use WhatsApp daily, and 51% use Facebook, according to a TNS survey released last October.  So at least two out of every three Internet users in India use mobile data purely to use one or the other of Facebooks apps, including WhatsApp. It would be great to find a net-neutral way to let users access the apps or sites they need to (which may include WhatsApp or Facebook), free, or cheaply.

While the Net Neutrality movement and now TRAI have shot down Free Basics, which would have got Facebook and a few select apps free of data charges to subscribers of one telco (Reliance Communications), TRAI hasn’t yet suggested what alternatives could be used to provide cheap or free Internet access to the hundreds of millions of mobile users who are unable or unwilling to pay for mobile data. (And no, they don’t have access to wireline broadband.)

TRAI did ask that question in its consultation paper, so we’re all hoping it will yet come up with some workable ideas. There are several options, for instance letting telcos offer a certain amount of free data for all, or using apps like Gigato which allow sponsors to top-up data, free, for prepaid users of specific apps: that recharged data can then be used for accessing any website or app.

Then there’s Digital India, which aims to put Wi-Fi into towns and villages, letting smartphone users access the internet free or cheaply.

Former journalist Pierre Fitter puts it well: “Good that all web content will be treated as equal. Now comes the important bit: making sure everyone can access the Internet.”

(Prasanto K Roy (@prasanto) is chief editor at Trivone Media, publishers of CXOtoday)