TRAI’s new paper about data pricing is boring. We made it fun
If you're still following the net neutrality debate in this country, you will have heard that TRAI, India's telecom regulator, just released yet another consultation paper about the topic.
This one clocks in at just 11 pages compared to April's tome, which was a mind-numbing 118 pages and made for killer bedtime reading (Sample this: "Therefore, M.1079 recommendations, basically based on G.1010, are applicable especially to the IMT-2000 mobile networks for ensuring end to end QoS based on user experience.")
This latest paper is still Snooze Central, but it raises some pretty important questions about the future of a neutral internet in India (Update: TRAI says that this paper isn't really about net neutrality at all). We trawled through it so you don't have to — we love our jobs — and here are some questions we know you want answers to.
What is this consultation paper about?
The paper focuses specifically on differential pricing for data, which is exactly what it sounds like — charging customers different prices for access to different websites and services. If mobile operators had their way, you would get a separate bill for using WhatsApp, another one for watching YouTube videos, yet another one for making a Skype call — and pay nothing at all for using Facebook because guess what, Papa Zuck struck a deal.
Is differential pricing the same as zero-rating?
Zero-rating is a kind of differential pricing. Zero-rating is essentially telecom industry jargon for data that a consumer doesn't pay for directly but is somehow subsidised by an operator or a content provider. Facebook's Free Basics program (formerly Internet.org), which provides access to a Facebook-approved section of the internet to people in 19 countries, strikes zero-rating deals with mobile operators to provide free data to consumers. In India, Reliance, which was the first operator that Free Basics was exclusive to, claimed that over a million Indians came online through the program.
Zero-rating isn't necessarily evil, but it can severely impact competition in the market by putting smaller players, who can't pay service providers to zero-rate their content, at a disadvantage.
What's TRAI saying in this paper? Don't use big words, please.
TRAI asks four questions to "concerned stakeholders" aka you and your mobile operator in this paper. We've picked them up verbatim from the actual paper, so some big words and bad grammar are inevitable.
1. Should TSPs (telecom service providers) be allowed to have differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications or platforms?
2. If differential pricing for data usage is permitted, what measures should be adopted to ensure that the principles of non-discrimination, transparency, affordable internet access, competition and market entry, and innovation are addressed?
3. Are there alternative methods/technologies/business models, other than differentiated tariff plans, available to achieve the objective of providing free internet access to consumers? If yes, please suggest/describe these methods/technologies/business models. Also, describe the potential benefits and disadvantages associated with such methods/technologies/business models.
4. Is there any other issue that should be considered in the present consultation on differential pricing for data services?
Ugh. Just give me the TL;DR version .
Basically, TRAI is trying to kick start a debate about zero-rating and its various pros and cons in the India.
Wait, didn't they already talk about zero-rating in the first consultation paper?
Remember we said that the first paper was 118 pages? Zero-rating was just one of the issues that it touched upon. This particular paper focuses only on zero-rating and tries to have a more nuanced discussion on the topic.
"[This paper] is written in a much more balanced manner than the last one," says net neutrality Saviour-in-Chief and Medianama majordomo Nikhil Pahwa. "It appears reasonable and not draconian."
Yes, but what's the point of doing it now?
If we had to guess, we would say… who're we kidding, we have no idea.
Maybe TRAI thinks zero-rating didn't get enough press the last time. Maybe they finally woke up to everyone calling out Facebook for Free Basics. Maybe they actually do care about your views (and your mobile operator's views) on zero-rating. Or maybe some officious bureaucrat at TRAI simply gets a kick out of releasing consultation papers.
"You can't second guess the regulator's intent," says Pahwa.
But I remember I wrote in to TRAI when this happened the last time!
You and a million other Indians.Your opinion on the subject has been heard loud and clear. Your email address has probably been leaked. In an ideal world, TRAI shouldn't negate those million emails it received just because it decided to release a new consultation paper. In an ideal world.
So what's next?
If you want to write in to TRAI again — and you should — send an email to email@example.com by December 30, 2015. (Update: Your mail may bounce back). You can also call +91-11-23230752, where a friendly TRAI officer will be happy to hear exactly what you think of zero-rating and net neutrality in India, and make sure your opinion is heard by someone important.