Net neutrality and fair share debates spike in India, too

The last few weeks have witnessed the revival of the net neutrality debate in India. At the center of the debate are suggestions made by the Indian telcos in response to a consultation paper issued by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), suggesting the selective banning of over the top (OTT) services.

The country's top three telcos, Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea, are demanding "same services, same rules" for the OTT players since some of them provide voice and data services, similar to the telcos. In essence, they want the OTT platforms to be governed by the same rules of a unified licensing regime, which are applied to them. As of now, OTT platforms come under the purview of the IT Act.

The telcos also feel that the OTT providers should give a "network usage fee" since they constitute a significant chunk of the data in their networks. Several internet rights groups believe this would be a violation of net neutrality principles. 

Earlier today, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents several service providers, including Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, among others, came out with a strong statement that "fair share" contribution by the OTTs does not disregard net neutrality.

"The Indian telcos are bound by their license conditions to ensure net neutrality, and will continue to do so. COAI affirms that the proposed fair share charge does not affect access to an open and free internet. The content and services for consumers would remain fully accessible with no traffic management/differentiation," said Lt. General Dr SP Kochhar, Director General, COAI, in a press statement.

"The fair share charge represents a just compensation mechanism intended to be paid by the largest traffic generators (LTGs) to TSPs [Telecom Service Providers], driven by the goal of ensuring the sustainability of telecom networks and create a harmonious and just framework that secures the industry's well-being over the long term," he added.

The COAI statement seems to be in response to the statement issued by Broadband India Forum (BIF) earlier this week. BIF represents several technology companies like Meta, Amazon and Google, among others.

"OTTs (content and applications over the internet) have been empowering individuals by boosting productivity and socio-economic standing in addition to having massive economic spillover effects on the nation's prosperity. Overregulation of the OTTs would be counterproductive, as this will lead to a higher cost to customers and reduce consumer choice. Besides, it would also adversely impact innovation, lead to discrimination, adversely impact smaller entities and startups, and lead to a violation of net neutrality guidelines," said TV Ramachandran, President of BIF.

Recently, more than 100 startups, including prominent ones like Paytm and Zerodha, wrote to TRAI to strengthen net neutrality rules and regulations in the country.

The net neutrality and fair usage debate is raging in other parts of the world as well. Orange, Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica and Vodafone are just some of the telcos demanding fair usage charges. The net neutrality debate is unlikely to quiet any time soon in India.

Historical perspective

Net neutrality is a contentious subject in India. In 2015, the TRAI had come up with a consultation paper on the regulatory framework for OTT services. This consultation paper invited comments on net neutrality for the first time in the country.

At the time, Facebook (Meta) had launched in association with some telcos in India. essentially offered access to some parts of the internet for free, allegedly to bridge the digital divide. Airtel, India's largest service provider at the time, had also come up with a plan to charge extra for the calls made over the internet. The service provider also launched Airtel Zero, which allowed companies to pay on behalf of the consumers while accessing their website on Airtel's network. All this led to a backlash from the public.

There was overwhelming support in favor of net neutrality and against differential pricing, leading TRAI to develop a separate paper and, subsequently, recommendations on the subject.

It remains to be seen if the people, as well as rights groups, will respond as strongly as they did in 2015-2016.