TRAI Chief more concerned on RCom’s free internet scheme

After coming out with historic rules banning discriminatory pricing, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s chief seems to have had a rethink on giving free access to data or rather a curated version of the Internet. The only disclaimer is that telecom operators should not do it. TRAI chairman Ram Sevak Sharma says he has no issues with platforms providing free access to select websites, so long as the access is secular and operator agnostic.

According to the TRAI chief, access to the internet is more important than a free internet. The spread of connectivity is most important. “I have no reservation in giving free data to people. What I have a reservation against is the business model of giving free data when you visit a particular website through a particular pipe. Poor people are not necessarily riding on that one pipe (operator); they’re spread all over,” said Mr Ram during an interview.

Free Basics and Reliance connections

Free Basics had essentially tied up with Reliance Communications. So, if you went through the Reliance pipe, these sites were free. If you went through the Airtel or Vodafone pipes, these sites were not free. It’s as though a shop in (Delhi’s) Connaught Place is giving discounts but to only those who come in a bus provided by Mr X. If you don’t come by that bus, no discount.

The new suggestion on free internet from the TRAI explores the possibility of free data or discounted data which is agnostic to the pipe. “You have heard of a toll- free number and that is the same concept. It does not matter whether you are on an Airtel or Vodafone network; the customer does not pay. We are exploring a toll-free equivalent in a data world, whereby you visit a website and if there was a way to know who you are and your bank account number, then the website can transfer that money or data back into your account,” added Ram.

Overall, the customer pays nothing. The paper brought out on Differential Pricing had raised the question on providing free data such that it is pipe-agnostic.

Gigato is an implementer of suitable platforms for the ‘Digital India’ project. Ultimately, the money (for the data) will be paid by the websites or portals. The government is also exploring electronic communication in the business by promoting e-governance websites for free.

Discriminatory pricing prohibition was Trai’s response to the net neutrality issue from a rate point of view. Trai will make a recommendation to the government on the broader principles of net neutrality in a pre-consultation paper. The government will adopt a final call on it, while we will decide on pricing issues.

America and the European Union have different models. India is guided by what is good for India. The internet is important for India as all services are going to ride on it – banking, health, education and transactions. All this is part of the vision of Digital India.

“We try to remain in touch with regulators across the world. Regulatory trends in the world are tracked by us and we have a knowledge base. I agree that there are many new things happening – the Internet of Things, Machine to Machine and new business models. Challenges are vibrant in the sector,” said chairman.

What is Free Basics? was rechristened Free Basics in September, just ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Facebook’s headquarters at founder Mark Zuckerberg’s invitation. According to Facebook, it is an open platform that gives Indian developers the opportunity to make their services and websites available free of cost to those who cannot afford internet access. However, this free access is limited to partner websites and applications. It was launched two years ago globally in partnership with Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality means access to free and unbiased internet for all. To put it in simple terms, anyone from anywhere around the world should be able to access or provide services and content on the internet without any discrimination.