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Exploring toll-free number equivalent for the data world, says TRAI Chairman RS sharma

In an interview with Pranav Mukul, Trai Chairman RS Sharma said that the regulator was exploring a toll-free number equivalent for data services.

Written by Pranav Mukul |
Updated: June 1, 2016 7:12:46 am
Pranav Mukul Pranav Mukul

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) recently began the consultation process on whether there could be a carrier-agnostic platform to provide free data to users. In an interview with Pranav Mukul, Trai Chairman RS Sharma said that the regulator was exploring a toll-free number equivalent for data services. Edited excerpts:

Trai has already issued a direction on differential pricing that did not allow internet firms to offer free data services. With the latest pre-consultation on free data, it is alleged that Trai is making a U-turn. What is the rationale?

People can allege anything; I’m not concerned about allegations of people. Essentially, this is the question that we had asked in the first consultation paper on differential pricing also. What happened was we did not get enough input on it because the entire debate got carried away to pricing. We are actually exploring the toll-free number equivalent in the data world. When you call a toll-free number, the company picks up the tab, you don’t pay. Similarly, there may be some websites like e-governance websites, which declare that they’re toll-free websites in that sense. Whether we can have such arrangements, without the explicit involvement of the telecom service providers. This is actually not at all contrary to what has been done. Basically what we’ve done is that if you visit a website only if you’re being given a good treatment through one pipe and not through another pipe, that’s not really a correct architecture. If there is an architecture that gives the same treatment to anybody who comes through any pipe, that’s an acceptable architecture.

Differential pricing and free data are two aspects of the larger net neutrality debate. Are there any other aspects you’re looking to deal with?

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We don’t know yet what are the other aspects because I can’t give a comprehensive definition of net neutrality. But broadly speaking there are two more issues besides the content and original destination, which are fast-laning and throttling of data. Maybe by this pre-consultation paper on net-neutrality, which we will bring out in a day or two, we will try to make the consultation more comprehensive by including any other aspect, which may have been lost out.

Are there any precedents to any other aspect you might be exploring in the net neutrality debate?

No, the reason for bringing out this paper is a letter from the government, which has asked for our advice on net neutrality in a comprehensive manner.

Once we’ve issued the recommendation, hopefully we will be able to resolve the entire issue.

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As the chairman of Trai, what is the approach that you take towards solving these issues, particularly looking at such polarising perceptions between various stakeholders?

When you have such diverse groups, there will always be differences in perception, polarisation, etc. and that’s where the regulator comes in. Regulator’s job is to balance the interest between various stakeholders, and essentially we’re trying to perform that job. It’s not a very pleasant situation, but that’s the nature of the thing.

Supreme Court set aside Trai’s order on compensation for call drops. Does Trai have enough powers to perform its mandate for protecting consumer interests?

After getting the honourable Supreme Court’s order, we are deliberating within Trai of what the next step should be. One thing is that Trai has the mandate of consumer protection, and we have to discharge that mandate. We will continue to discharge that mandate. What the way forward will be is something that we’re still deliberating.

Department of Telecommunications has amended the unified licensing regime to allow internet telephony, but there are unsettled issues such as interconnection charges. Does Trai plan to step in?

We are going to bring about a consultation paper on internet telephony soon, which will explore the feasibility, possibility, desirability of the internet telephony in our country.

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