DoT No to Lib­eral Pay­ment Norms

Telco’s move seen as test case for re­cent net neu­tral­ity rules

The Economic Times - - Front Page - Our Bureau

Bharti Air­tel has sought tele­com reg­u­la­tor’s ap­proval be­fore part­ner­ing with a US con­tent provider to of­fer exclusive video ser­vices to cus­tomers over in­tranet in what could be a test case for net neu­tral­ity rules. “We have been ap­proached by one of the big global con­tent providers,” the telco wrote in a let­ter to the Tele­com Reg­u­la­tory Au­thor­ity of In­dia (Trai) on Mon­day.

Call Wait­ing

neu­tral­ity back­ers say Air­tel pro­posal would favour one con­tent provider and deny oth­ers

ex­plor­ing new ways to hold on to data cus­tomers but don’t want to risk pe­nal ac­tion from Trai

The US com­pany “wishes to of­fer video con­tent on an exclusive ba­sis over Air­tel’s closed elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work (CECN) to our cus­tomers”, the let­ter said.

But “be­fore ar­riv­ing at any busi­ness de­ci­sion on such an ar­range­ment”, the com­pany has sought the sec­tor reg­u­la­tor’s ad­vice on “whether it can go ahead”.

Air­tel de­clined to re­veal the name of the global con­tent com­pany on con­fi­den­tial­ity grounds.

The stakes are high for the Su­nil Mit­tal-founded com­pany and the in­dus­try as whole, par­tic­u­larly with Bharti Air­tel hav­ing re­cently be­come a pan-In­dia 4G player even be­fore new­comer Re­liance Jio In­fo­comm launches high-speed mo­bile ser­vices.

A sup­porter of net neu­tral­ity said the reg­u­la­tor should re­ject the pro­posal.

“Air­tel’s pro­posal, if ap­proved, would flout the prin­ci­ples of net neu­tral­ity and must not be en­ter­tained by the sec­tor reg­u­la­tor,” said Prashant Su­gathan, coun­sel at Soft­ware Free­dom Law Cen­ter In­dia. “If the pro­posal is ap­proved, Bharti Air­tel would clearly be dis­crim­i­nat­ing by favour­ing one global con­tent provider, and deny­ing oth­ers, who may also have sim­i­lar video con­tent on of­fer, from reach­ing out to its size­able cus­tomer base. The US con­tent provider would doubt­less be a clear ben­e­fi­ciary un­der this ar­range­ment.”

A se­nior Trai of­fi­cial said the au­thor­ity will ex­am­ine the let­ter and give an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse to Air­tel.

An in­dus­try ex­pert, who did not wish to be named, said: “This ap­pears to be an at­tempt to pro­voke a re­sponse from Trai, es­pe­cially since pre­vi­ous calls for clar­i­fi­ca­tion from the in­dus­try on the dis­crim­i­na­tory pric­ing rule have not elicited a re­sponse yet.”

In Fe­bru­ary, Trai had weighed in on the side of net neu­tral­ity – the con­cept that ev­ery­one is guar­an­teed equal ac­cess to the in­ter­net – and barred dis­crim­i­na­tory pric­ing of data ser­vices. But it had ex­empted those of­fered over closed user net­works, or in­tranets, from the purview of its reg­u­la­tion.

In its let­ter to the tele­com reg­u­la­tor, Bharti Air­tel said while its pro­posed ar­range­ment with the global con­tent provider would be com­pli­ant with Trai’s dis­crim­i­na­tory pric­ing reg­u­la­tion, “it may well be viewed by some stake­hold­ers (to be) in vi­o­la­tion of the prin­ci­ples of net neu­tral­ity”.

That’s be­cause ad­vo­cates of net neu­tral­ity and a free in­ter­net be­lieve the ex­emp­tion to data ser­vices de­liv­ered over closed elec­tronic net­works is a po­ten­tial loop­hole. This, they say, could be used by tel­cos to of­fer data ser­vices at dif­fer­en­tial rates, un­do­ing the reg­u­la­tor’s ob­jec­tive of dis­al­low­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory pric­ing of in­ter­net ser­vices.

The in­tranet, or CECN, can be es­tab­lished with­out di­rectly con­nect­ing to the in­ter­net.

In­dia’s mo­bile car­ri­ers have al­ready urged the tele­com reg­u­la­tor to clear the air on whether they can part­ner with in­ter­net apps to of­fer con­tent to sub­scribers at dif­fer­en­tial rates over closed user net­works.

The Cel­lu­lar Op­er­a­tors As­so­ci­a­tion of In­dia (COAI), which rep­re­sents In­dia’s big­gest tel­cos such as Bharti Air­tel, Voda­fone and Idea Cel­lu­lar among oth­ers, had, urged Trai to clar­ify “the con­cept and scope” of closed user net­works, and how it planned to op­er­a­tionalise it.

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