DoT No to Liberal Payment Norms
Telco’s move seen as test case for recent net neutrality rules
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.
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.