Net Neutrality

DoT Pushes for Net Neutrality in India

The net neutrality movement appeared to receive a major boost in India after the Department of Telecommunications recently gave its unequivocal backing to the principle that all web traffic must be treated on fair and equal terms.

At the same time, however, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is proposing to restrict and regulate the use of Internet telephony applications, such as WhatsApp and Skype Ltd. , for local and national calls. "OTT [over-the-top], domestic voice call (local plus national) communication services have the potential of significantly disrupting existing revenue models of TSPs [telecom service providers]," says the DoT in a 111-page report.

"There exists a regulatory arbitrage, wherein such services also bypass the existing licensing and regulatory regime creating a non-level playing field between TSPs and OTT providers," add the report authors.

This will please service providers that have long urged authorities to create a level playing field between them and OTT players. But operators will be less happy the DoT has argued against regulation of Internet telephony companies when it comes to international calls.

That authorities are treating international calls differently from domestic ones is intriguing. The move was possibly designed as a compromise, ensuring both OTT players and operators have something to feel satisfied about.

The DoT has also recommended outlawing any tariff plan that encourages blocking, throttling or the prioritization of content. This comes after Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) launched a controversial "zero rating" plan several months ago, allowing customers to access some web services free of charge. (See Airtel Zero Sparks Net Neutrality Debate in India.)

The DoT's report is heavily critical of the practice of zero rating. "Such practices constitute an entry barrier to small start-ups in a competitive market for applications and services," it says.

It has proposed tackling such abuses in two ways. First, operators must seek approval from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) for new plans, which will secure approval by default if the TRAI does not reach a decision one way or the other within a certain period of time. Second, opponents of particular plans may file complaints with the TRAI on a case-by-case basis.

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This effectively means any tariff plan -- even if in breach of net neutrality principles -- will be deemed acceptable if the TRAI does not issue a ruling on it within a specific timeframe. Consequently, the TRAI will not act against a tariff plan that might be in violation of net neutrality unless and until there is a complaint. In its present form, this recommendation is likely to benefit the operators immensely.

The DoT further recommends that "application-specific control within the 'Internet traffic' class may not be permitted." In the same vein, it asks service providers not to use traffic-management practices like deep packet inspection "for unlawful access to the type and content of an application in an IP packet."

Facebook face-off?
The DoT has also attacked Facebook 's Internet.org project, which was launched in India some time ago and supports the use of zero rating as a way of popularizing mobile Internet services.

In India, mobile operator Reliance Communications Ltd. is a prominent member of this initiative, which is also backed by telecom bellwethers including MediaTek Inc. (Taiwan: 2454), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), Samsung Corp. and Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM). Indian authorities describe Facebook's role as that of a "gatekeeper." Facebook has reacted by insisting it is not a gatekeeper but a "gateway."

The DoT's recommendations need to be cleared by TRAI before they come into force and are now facing strong opposition from the online community, which is already unhappy that Internet telephony calls to mobile and landline numbers are not allowed in India.

"There are already enough regulations on Internet telephony in India and there is no need to further bring a licensing or revenue share arrangement between the OTTs and TSPs," said the Internet and Mobile Association of India, which represents the interests of India's online players. "This will disrupt VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] and will also skew any further innovation in the same field."

— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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