Reliance Communications has put on hold the launch of the Facebook Free Basics service following Telecom Regulator Authority of India’s directive to this effect. “As directed by TRAI, the commercial launch of Free Basics has been kept in abeyance, till they consider all details and convey a specific approval,” a Reliance Communications spokesperson said on Wednesday.
The TRAI had asked Reliance Communications, the only telecom partner for the app, to stop providing the service and issue a compliance report on the same. Times of India, which reported the matter first, quoted senior officials at TRAI as saying that, “The question has arisen whether a telecom operator should be allowed to have differential pricing for different kinds of content. Unless that question is answered, it will not be appropriate for us to continue to make that happen.“
In a response to the report, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected.”
Incidentally, the news comes during a week when Facebook has launched a widespread campaign on newspapers and the web pushing for Free Basics in India. In fact, the social network has come in for criticism for its attempts to get people to sign a petition to TRAI “supporting digital equality”. The digital campaign for the same got served to users in US as well, resulting in some online outrage.
TRAI has recently issued a paper questioning zero-rating platforms and whether they are discriminatory. Free Basics is one such platform. The regulator’s paper says, that such tariffs put small content providers at a disadvantage and “creates entry barriers.”
TRAI, however insists that its paper has nothing to do with Net Neutrality per se, even though it espouses arguments given by Internet activists on the issue.
Facebook also launched a campaign on its site asking India users to save the ‘Free Basics’ platform by signing an email to TRAI. Free Basics was formerly known as the Internet.org but has faced criticism in India as many argue that it is in violation of Net Neutrality principles. Interestingly TRAI’s paper has received over 6 lakh responses, mostly relating to Free Basics.
In its campaign letter, Facebook says that “Free Basics is a first step to connecting 1 billion Indians to the opportunities online – and achieving digital equality in India. But without your support, it could be banned in a matter of weeks.”
Facebook’s letter to TRAI reads,
“To the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, I support digital equality for India. Free Basics provides free access to essential internet services like communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and more. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile operators. With 1 billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country’s most vulnerable people. I support Free Basics – and digital equality for India. Thank you.”
TRAI’s stakeholders are expected to post their comments for the paper by December 30 and counter-comments are to be submitted by January 7.
Facebook however insists that Free Basics platform is free for all content providers, app developers and that it does not charge for the service and that the service has helped more people come online.