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TRAI free data proposals anger net neutrality supporters

Indian regulator TRAI has come under criticism from mobile operators and net neutrality supporters after recommending a controversial method of providing free data.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has posited two models of offering free data. The first model would be subsidised by the universal service obligation fund, and see rural subscribers each receiving 100MB of data per month from the government.

The more controversial “aggregation model” would allow third-party aggregators to provide free data as long as they can be used by all operators and conform with the rules preventing discriminatory pricing. Critics of this model argue that in addition to being unnecessarily complicated, it strays closely to zero-rating models.

However, TRAI chairman RS Sharma refuted these allegations, claiming that the proposals adhere to net neutrality principles and do not provide any kind of preferential treatment towards particular data services.

“The idea was to formalise a structure to provide free data to consumers in accordance with the principles of net neutrality”, said Sharma. “We haven’t permitted any exclusive relationship between a telecoms service provider and a content provider. If a content provider wants to provide free data, it will have to team up with all service providers.”

Net neutrality has been a hot-button issue in India, with Facebook’s Free Basics service at the centre of the controversy. The service, which provides zero-rated access to certain websites, has seen lobbying both for and against it within India.

TRAI ruled in February last year that differentiated data pricing would be outlawed, but the Cellular Operators Association of India - a body representing a number of major Indian operators - has called for the ban to be repealed due to a lack of specificity in the rules.

COAI has argued that TRAI should encourage the use of existing guidelines to encourage data usage in India’s underserved rural regions, noting that this is “already the role of providers as per existing licence norms, instead of complicating matters further.”

Supporters of net neutrality have claimed that if the free data aggregator proposals allow app providers and websites to offer free data to all providers for a certain rate, smaller players could be frozen out if they are unable to afford the fees. This could lead to the larger operators gaining a monopoly.

TRAI’s recommendations are being reviewed by the Department of Telecom, which may request further clarification on them from the regulator.