India’s cellcos cringe as TRAI goes Full Monty on net neutrality

Commuters watch videos on their mobile phones as they travel in a suburban train in Mumbai, April 2, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade/Files

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) made long-awaited recommendations on Tuesday to ensure an open internet and prevent any discrimination in internet access in the country.

After more than a year of debate, TRAI said it opposed any “discriminatory treatment” of data, including blocking, slowing or offering preferential speeds or treatment to any content.

The Indian regulator’s support of so-called “net neutrality” stands in contrast to the recent stance taken by the chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

Last week, Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by President Donald Trump in January, unveiled plans to rescind net neutrality rules championed by former President Barack Obama that treated internet service providers like public utilities.

In India, TRAI ruled in favor of net neutrality in February 2016 by prohibiting discriminatory tariffs for data, after an extended campaign by internet activists who argued that offerings such as Facebook’s free basics platform violated net neutrality principles.

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,” TRAI chairman RS Sharma said.

Idea Cellular, India’s third-biggest wireless carrier, said it would not comment on the recommendations, while Vodafone Group said it would respond after studying the suggestions.

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) – the telecom sector’s main lobby group – said in a statement it was “disappointed” TRAI did not adopt an industry recommendation to have a “wider approach to net neutrality”, noting its issues with “over-the-top” players were not considered.

Indian telecom providers have been hurt by a bruising local market price war around data charges, while over-the-top service providers that offer free international calling, like WhatsApp and Skype, have also hurt their bottom lines.

In an apparent nod to the US FCC’s new stance, COAI said, “At a time when, globally, countries are adopting a more market oriented, and market driven approach to net neutrality 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.”

Activists lobbying in favor of net neutrality said that while the recommendations were welcome, they needed to be put into license agreements.

“Our job is not done,” said Apar Gupta, a Supreme Court lawyer and co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation.

“It falls on the Department of Telecommunications to take the recommendations and turn them into licensing conditions to be put on telecom providers,” Gupta said, adding there was no time frame to implement the recommendations.

TRAI’s recommendations are the latest in India’s efforts to define net neutrality. In 2016, TRAI issued a pre-consultation paper on the hotly debated issue and followed it up with a consultation paper in January 2017.

(By Rahul Bhatia and Aditya Kalra; Additional reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Adrian Croft)

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