The government will soon amend telecom licences to incorporate rules on net neutrality, which will include a bar on blocking or slowing down of content, while allowing fast lanes only for ‘critical’ services and keeping ‘content delivery networks’ out of their ambit.
The Telecom Commission (TC), the highest decision-making body in the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), accepted the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s recommendations of November 2017 in total on Wednesday, underscoring India’s stance supporting an open internet. Supporters of net neutrality welcomed the move while telcos said it could stifle innovation.
The TC also cleared the new telecom policy—the National Digital Communications Policy 2018 — which aims to create jobs and draw investment of more than $100 billion to India by 2022. The new policy will be presented to Cabinet for approval in two weeks.
“All recommendations of Trai on net neutrality have been accepted. Its core principles will be followed except in the case of critical services where you need to prioritise certain kinds of traffic,” telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan said.
“Those categories of critical services that will be notified subsequently by the DoT will be kept out, and that is in line with international practices. A separate regime for critical services will be issued,” Sundararajan said.
She added that a committee, in consultation with Trai, will earmark critical services in a few months, but the government can’t take a rigid position on this as it’s a “very evolving framework”.
The panel will also frame traffic management practices (TMPs) for telcos to adopt for ensuring quality of services, security of networks, emergency services and implementing court orders and government directions as long as they are transparent and the impact on users is declared.
While the Internet of Things (IoT) will also fall under the ambit of the open internet rules, services such as autonomous vehicles, healthcare requiring remote diagnostic surgeries and certain categories of financial services, will be prioritised over, say, social media or WhatsApp chats, because in such communication not even a milli-second can be lost, Sundararajan said.
DoT will amend telecom and internet service provider (ISP) licences immediately to say that they will be subject to the principles of an open web. While the rules don’t need Cabinet approval, they have to be notified before enforcement. International treaties and court orders will be exempted from the rules.
The rules will also contain provisions to levy penalties for violating licence norms. (Brought up) A multi-stakeholder not-for-profit body will be formed to monitor and enforce the rules.
The definitive backing for a free internet ends a four-year, acrimonious debate that pitted mobile phone operators against content providers and app makers. Telcos had said there was no need for any stringent regulation as they didn’t discriminate in any case. App makers wanted explicit rules barring any discrimination.
India’s stand on implementing non-discriminatory internet access, or net neutrality, comes a month after open internet rules expired in the US, legally arming internet service providers (ISPs) there with sweeping powers to slow down, block or even offer paid prioritisation to some websites.
India’s rules on net neutrality say telecom or Internet service providers should be barred from signing pacts that can lead to discriminatory treatment based on content, sender, receiver, protocols or even equipment.
“DoT is not accepting any walled gardens,” Sundararajan said.
The rules though exempt content delivery networks that don’t use public internet from restrictions on non-discriminatory treatment.
Angel Broking’s telecom expert Mayuresh Joshi said the exemption “would particularly benefit big integrated carriers like Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio which already have a strong presence in the content platforms, and would help them create a robust content ecosystem to drive user traction and sustain their leading positions in the 4G data services space.”
The government will also allow carriers or internet access providers to use some TMPs on their networks.
“DoT will frame the policy on traffic management practices that telcos can adopt, which can be part of the rules. Some more directions to telcos may be issued with regards to TMP,” the secretary said, adding that the regulator will also give recommendations on this.
Net neutrality campaigners welcomed the decision.
“India now has the strongest net neutrality regulations in the world and I am glad it has not gone the US way. So, if they (telcos or ISPs) violate net neutrality, then they will violate the licence terms. This is a strong way of ensuring that they do not violate net neutrality,” said Nikhil Pahwa, cofounder of the savetheinternet net neutrality campaign.
Net neutrality backers though will need to keep a close watch on the exceptions allowed, he said.
Experts noted the stringent monetary penalties for breaching net neutrality norms, starting at Rs 50,000 per violation per day but capped at Rs 50 lakh depending on the gravity of the violation.
“Given the current plight of the telecom market, any punitive levy of this magnitude would sound colossal and automatically have a natural tendency to be resisted or challenged in courts by the defaulting telcos,” said Sanjay Kapoor, ex-CEO, Bharti Airtel.
The monitoring and enforcement body will have telcos, ISPs, IoT platform providers, civil society, consumer and government as its members. Trai will issue detailed guidelines on this, Sundararajan said.
Telcos said the rules could hamper innovation. They also opposed the proposal to include Internet of Things (IoT), which is expected to be a big revenue generator under 5G.
“A light-touch regulatory approach should be adopted so that innovation is not hampered by the net neutrality rules. Many of the 5G applications will have stringent data communication requirements, such as high reliability or minimal delay which require traffic management techniques,” said Rajan S Mathews, director general of lobby group the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). “We have urged the government to review industry practices with respect to traffic prioritisation to foster 5G-enabled applications and ecosystem in India.”
The net neutrality debate began late 2014 after Bharti Airtel wanted to charge more for calls made over the internet, but was forced to abandon the move after a social media uproar. Early the following year, it was alleged that telcos were violating the principle of net neutrality by tying up with content providers and providing them toll-free access.
In February 2016, Trai barred discriminatory pricing of data services, including zero-rated plans such as Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero, as it dealt with the net neutrality issue from a tariff perspective.
Trai issued a full consultation paper on net neutrality in early 2017. This had followed a DoT panel’s recommendations on the subject backing an open internet but advocating regulation of communication apps such as WhatsApp and Skype, which provide the same services as telcos.
Trai’s recommendations on net neutrality, which have now been accepted by the TC, exclude regulation of communication apps. Tra