By Prasanto K Roy
On Monday afternoon, India’s telecom regulator finally put to rest the fiery net neutrality debate in India, by ruling against zero rating and differential tariffs.
Zero rating lets Airtel users use Facebook, for instance, free of data levies, while charging for access to other services or websites.
This violates net neutrality, which says there should be no differential pricing — free data for one service, but priced for another — based on the content or websites.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has now forbidden such “discriminatory pricing” by whatever name it may be called.
The watchdog’s ruling is clear and sharp, and a blow to Facebook’s high-stakes Free Basics platform, born as Internet.org, as well as to Airtel Zero and other zero-rating platforms tried out, or planned, by telcos.
The year-long battle between the heavyweights, including telecom giants and Facebook, and a bunch of volunteers under the SaveTheInternet.in banner, was fiery, and seemingly unequal.
Facebook ploughed in an estimated Rs.300 crore into its three-month campaign defending Free Basics. Against it, though, the lone volunteer-activists gradually managed to drum up a great deal of public support.
A spokesman said Facebook was “disappointed with the outcome, but we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings”.
Expectedly, the activists were ecstatic.
“This is a historic outcome,” said Kiran Jonnalagadda, a co-founder of the SaveTheInternet.in movement.
“For the first time, India leads where the US and Europe will follow. Many thanks to TRAI chairman R.S. Sharma for backing such an important ruling as his first major act in office.”
The TRAI ruling got widespread applause, including from tech association Nasscom, which had given a submission supporting net neutrality. Its Internet council chairman Sanjeev Bikhchandani said the ruling would “help address apprehensions of young startups fearing the lack of a level playing field.”
Entrepreneur Arvind Jha of TiE said the collective power of 7,000 startups (whose founders had written to the PMO supporting Net Neutrality) and a dedicated team of volunteers has won over Facebook’s ad blitzkrieg running into hundreds of crores of rupees.
So have David and the good guys vanquished Goliath, ending the battle?
The reality may be more nuanced than that. A battle much bigger than activists versus Facebook is up ahead: Providing Internet access to nearly a billion Indians who are offline, or nominally online, today.
First, the nuances.
Facebook is responsible for a great deal of the Internet penetration in India. Of the 300 million mobile users who make up over 90 percent of India’s internet base, 56 percent use WhatsApp daily, and 51 percent use Facebook, according to a TNS survey released last October.
So, at least, two out of every three Internet users in India use mobile data, purely to use one or the other of Facebook’s apps, including WhatsApp. It would be great to find a net-neutral way to let users access the apps or sites they need to (which may include WhatsApp or Facebook), free, or cheaply.
The Net neutrality movement, and now TRAI, has shot down Free Basics, which would have got Facebook and a few select apps free of data charges to subscribers of one telco (Reliance Communications).
But, TRAI hasn’t yet suggested what alternatives could be used to provide cheap or free Internet access to the hundreds of millions of mobile users who are unable or unwilling to pay for mobile data.
And no! They don’t have access to even wireline broadband.
The watchdog did ask that question in its consultation paper. So we’re all hoping it will yet come up with some workable ideas.
There are several options as well.
For instance, letting the telecom companies offer a certain amount of free data for all, or using apps like Gigato which allow sponsors to top-up data, free, for prepaid users of specific apps: that recharged data can then be used for accessing any website or app.
Then there’s Digital India, which aims to put Wi-Fi into towns and villages, letting smartphone users access the internet free or cheaply.
Former journalist Pierre Fitter puts it well: “Good that all Web content will be treated as equal. Now comes the important bit: making sure everyone can access the Internet.” (IANS)
(Prasanto K. Roy is a senior technology journalist)