Trai Backs Net Neutrality; Will RJio, Airtel Stand To Gain?

by Sohini Bagchi    Nov 29, 2017


The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has backed the basic principles of an open and free internet in its new released recommendations on net neutrality. Experts believe the proposed regulations are likely to give an edge to integrated operators like Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd and Bharti Airtel Ltd over pure play connectivity providers.

The regulatory body recommended that Internet service providers (ISPs) should be prohibited from discriminating between their web traffic by either blocking some apps, websites and services or by offering ”fast lanes” to those who pay for the privilege, as Trai chairman R.S. Sharma said, “Nobody owns the internet, it is everybody’s property and therefore it should be open and accessible to all.”

Hence, if the government accepts the proposal, ISPs will not be able to block any web traffic or offer fast lanes for content providers who pay for the facility. 

Trai had partially addressed the topic of Net neutrality in February 2016 when it ruled in favour of prohibiting discriminatory tariffs for data. It barred platforms like Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ and Airtel Zero which allowed free access to select websites. The new regulations go a step further and recommend prohibiting any service provider from throttling data speeds.

“The core principles of net neutrality, non-discriminatory treatment of all content, treating internet as an open platform, we’ve upheld them,” said Sharma, who believes that Internet is an important platform for the country, especially in the context of innovation, startups, online transactions, various government applications, and the Digital India programme. “So, it is important that the platform is kept open and free and not cannibalised,” he stated.

Mayuresh Joshi of Angel Broking said the reason content delivery networks have been kept out of the regulation is that they will not impact competition and are not considered discriminatory.
Edelweiss Securities analyst commented, the proposed rules are likely to give integrated operators an upper hand versus pure-play connectivity providers. They expect telcos such as Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel to be key beneficiaries as they have a presence in content platforms. Reliance Jio (JioTV and JioCinema, etc) and Airtel (Wynk Movies, Music & Games) have been creating their own content ecosystem to retain and increase subscribers.

 In other words, these telcos will use the content delivery network exemption and offer platform content at lower prices to drive their subscriber base.

Trai has also suggested changing licence terms of ISPs to explicitly restrict any form of discrimination in Internet access based on content. It has proposed to bar services providers from creating partnerships that will have a discriminatory effect based on content, sender or receiver, protocols or user equipment, except in special cases like court orders and government directions.

The regulator has recommended for DoT to set up a panel of telecom operators, ISPs, content providers, civil society organizations and consumer representatives to monitor and probe violations. Further, Trai wants telecom operators to declare their traffic management practices as and when deployed and the impact it may have had on the users. Internet firms lauded Trai’s recommendations, while telecom operators said that the regulator has applied a ‘narrow definition’ to the topic.

Telcos wanted over the top players such WhatsApp and Skype that offer voice services to be regulated as they are competing for the same set of services. Meanwhile, experts said the report did not mention a timeframe for implementing the recommendations. 

Rajan S. Mathews, DG, COAI mentioned that the recommendations are principally in agreement with the industry submissions regarding the narrow issue of Net Neutrality, as encompassing, no paid prioritization, no throttling, no fast lanes, while allowing network management, etc. We are at the same time disappointed that the authority did not adopt the industry recommendation to have a wider approach to Net Neutrality, where issues of OTT players, definition of Net Neutrality to include issues around connecting the next 1 billion unconnected users, national development priorities, etc., were not considered.

“Inclusion of IoT remains a huge concern, and we will need to look closely at this. A Committee to review and decide on network management violations is unnecessarily bureaucratic, and not in keeping with light touch regulation or the ease of doing business. The DoT is already well positioned to investigate any violation of license conditions and it already has all the necessary enforcement mechanisms in place hence such a heavy handed approach is not necessary, as is, now being proposed by TRAI,” said Mathews.

“Moreover at a time, when globally, countries are adopting a more market oriented, and market driven approach to NN in order to not stifle development, innovation, proliferation and growth of the Internet, we believe TRAI should have adopted a light touch approach to Net Neutrality,” he added.

The prohibition, according to Angel Broking, only applies to discriminatory tariffs based on content. Service providers can offer lower tariffs for all users for a limited period, then that would not constitute violation of Trai’s order, says the brokerage.
Service providers are disappointed, given that the regulator has not made any recommendation for voice-related over-the-top applications, except that separate regulations to deal with these applications be created. Telcos have asked for a level-playing field.
The regulator has also recommended a watchdog for enforcing Net neutrality and has proposed reasonable measures of traffic management. It has also recommended stiff penalties for violations, starting at Rs 50,000 per violation per day. The overall penalty could go as high as Rs 50 lakh, depending on the gravity of the violation. 

Here’s a look at some of the key milestones in the history of Net Neutrality in India.

February 2014: The debate on network neutrality in India gathered public attention after Gopal Vittal, CEO of Airtel’s India operations, said that companies offering free messaging apps like Skype, Line and Whatsapp should be regulated similar to telecom operators.

August 2014: TRAI rejected a proposal from telecom companies to make messaging application firms share part of their revenue with the carriers or the government.

October 2014: Vodafone India Marten Pieters CEO suggested that companies like Facebook and Whatsapp should be taxed to ensure a level playing field with telecom operators.

November 2014: TRAI began investigating if Airtel was implementing preferential access by offering special Internet packs which allowed WhatsApp and Facebook data at rates which were lower than its standard data rates.

December 2014: Telecom service provider, Airtel India, announced additional charges for making voice calls (VoIP) from its network using apps like WhatsApp, Skype, etc. The TRAI chief Rahul Khullar said that Airtel cannot be held responsible for violating net neutrality because India has no regulation that demands net neutrality. Airtel’s move faced criticism on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.

10 February 2015: Facebook launched in India with Reliance Communications. It said that it aims to provide free access to 38 websites through an app. Only Bing was made available as the search engine. Sunil Mittal, CEO of Bharti Airtel, criticised the concept and said, “If you are going to make the data free, then let’s do completely philanthropic projects. Government must make spectrum free, there should be free network, but it is not happening.”

27 March 2015: TRAI released a formal consultation paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services, seeking comments from the public. The consultation paper was criticised for being one sided and having confusing statements. It received condemnation from various politicians and Indian Internet users. The last date for submission of comment was 24 April 2015 and TRAI received over a million emails.

6 April 2015: Airtel announced the “Airtel Zero” scheme. Under the scheme, app firms sign a contract and Airtel provides the apps for free to its customers. The reports of Flipkart, an e-commerce firm, joining the “Airtel Zero” scheme drew negative response. People began to give the one-star rating to its app on Google Play.

11 April 2015: A YouTube comedy channel All India Bakchod uploaded a video titled “Save The Internet” which urged people to email TRAI demanding net neutrality. The video was re-shared on Twitter by numerous times, including by some Indian actors., the Times Group, NewsHunt and NDTV pulled out of the Facebook initiated expressing their support for net neutrality. However, Mark Zuckerberg defended in an interview to Hindustan Times saying, “Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes.

16 April 2015: the Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, also wrote an letter to TRAI supporting net neutrality. Other politicians who came out in support of net neutrality were Rahul Gandhi, Rajeev Chandrasekha, Ajay Maken and Tarun Vijay.

23 April 2015: Various organizations under the ambit of Free Software Movement of India organized protests in various cities across India. Free Software Foundation Tamil Nadu organized a protest march at Besant Nagar Beach.. Free Software Movement of Karnataka organized a protest march from National Games Village to Forum Mall in Bangalore.

14 April 2015: Following the protests Flipkart decided to pull out of Airtel Zero. The e-commerce firm confirmed the news in an official statement on 14 April, saying, “We will be walking away from the ongoing discussions with Airtel for their platform Airtel Zero”. The Communication and IT Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said that a committee will be formed to study the net neutrality issue.

27 April 2015: Members of the Anonymous India group claimed that they had taken down TRAI’s official website,, using a DDoS attack in retaliation for TRAI’s release of PDF files containing the names and emails of more than a million people who commented on the “Regulatory Framework for OTT services” paper. However, officials from the IT Ministry could not confirm it and said the website was down most likely due to high traffic. TRAI was criticized for violating the privacy of the respondents by making their emails public along with email ids, as it exposed them to the wide internet thus potentially grabbing eyeballs of spammers.

9 December 2015:TRAI brings out a consultation paper on differential pricing of data services and invited public comments to be sent by December 30, 2015.  The paper discusses issues related to differential tariff plans of the Telecom Service providers (TSPs) who offer zero or discounted tariffs to content of certain websites/ applications/platforms.

17 December 2015: Facebook starts an aggressive Rs 300 crore ‘Free basics’ campaign, flaunting advertisements across newspapers, TV and outdoor media.

28 December 2015: Founders and CEOs of nine start-ups, including Paytm, Zomato and GoQii, wrote to TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma pitching for an open Internet while seeking “clear regulations” on the issue of differential pricing for data services.

30 December 2015: Industry bodies IAMAI and Nasscom oppose blanket differential pricing. Mark Zuckerberg reaches out to entrepreneurs for help.

13 January 2016: Releasing number of responses received through ‘ and’, TRAI said only 1.89 million had responded against Facebook’s January 6 claim of more than 11 million supporting its plan to make parts of the Internet available for free under ‘free basics’.

19 January 2016: attempt to lobby for its Free Basics initiative a “crude” attempt at turning the consultation over differential pricing of data services into an “orchestrated opinion poll” on Free Basics. Facebook had partnered with Reliance Communications in India to offer Free Basics service. However, the services were put in abeyance,

21 January 2016: TRAI firms up its view on Net Neutrality and differential pricing of data services and will come out with its stand by the end of this month. An open-house discussion on differential pricing of data services, saw huge participation from telecom operators, consumer rights groups, industry bodies and individuals.

8 February 2016: TRAI took a revolutionary decision, prohibiting telecom service providers from levying discriminatory rates for data, thus ruling in favor of Net Neutrality in India. This move was welcomed by not just by millions of Indians but also by various political parties, businesspersons, industry leaders, and the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee. Crusaders for Net Neutrality who set up and were elated at this news.

March 3, 2016: DoT seeks Tari’s recommendations on net neutrality.

May 30, 2016: Trai issues pre-consultation paper on net neutrality – aims to narrow down on issues impacting net neutrality before coming out with a full-fledged consultation paper on the issue.
December 19, 2016: Trai issues recommendations on providing minimal amounts of free data for rural Indian consumers – recommendations sent to DoT. DoT has decided to send back the recommendations to Trai for relook.
January 4, 2017: Trai issues full consultation paper on net neutrality focused specifically on questions of requirements, design, scope and implementation of a net neutrality framework in India.
November 28, 2017: Trai issues ​India’s ​first ever recommendations on net neutrality.