Countering the stand of telcos on the issue of differential pricing for data services, Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar has written to TRAI about what he calls an attempt to “cabelise the internet through gatekeeping”.
The TRAI consultation paper dated December 9, 2015, had sought comments on the matter of differential pricing. In ‘counter comments’ to the claim that VoIP and OTT services take away the level playing field, the MP said “the need for a free, open and fair internet, however, must supersede this desire of telcos to misuse control, and increase profits”.
He says the TRAI Act, in its current form, does not have enough teeth to adequately define and enforce consumer rights. “There is significant evidence that due to the finite number of access providers and limited competition in the sector, there exists a pricing and QoS co-op. There is therefore a need for a strong set of legal consumer rights and a legislation that gives Indian consumers a fair deal.”
He suggests a clear legislation outlining the basic principles of Net Neutrality and a set of clear conditions that are binding on telcos. “Further, the licensing agreements for Telcos must include contractual clauses on differential tariffing and other Net Neutrality principles within the licence agreement for the provision of Internet Services by TSPs.” Also, he wants the regulator to “be vested with increased powers to regulate and punish breaches of Net Neutrality principles” by amending the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Act, 1997.
He said telcos cannot be permitted to increase tariffs to access some parts of the web or apps. “This is a deliberate effort to make access more expensive to some parts of the Internet, thereby pricing out the app/site from the consumer. This will amount to gatekeeping and abuse of power by TSPs to discriminate against certain apps.”
Countering Vodafone India’s submission that “differentiated pricing also has societal benefits, ensuring that communications and internet services are accessible, affordable and available”, the MP said this amounts to suggesting that the cabelisation of the internet and vesting Telcos with gatekeeping powers delivers several societal benefits. “This is false and the reverse is true. Allowing gatekeeping and cabelisation will cause medium to long term disadvantages to Consumers, Technological Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”
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He said differential pricing can only be permitted if “there is no commercial quid pro quo between Telcos and Content Providers like Sponsored data, or if it is to Zero Rate a government mandated service”. He said telcos should not be permitted to exercise any control on the consumers’ right to surf the net, and must not have any say in pricing or network management.
Some telcos like Idea and Reliance India have submitted that “differential pricing is a legitimate business practice and does not in any way hinder consumer choice or innovation, as consumer choice is contingent on “free will of consumers” and the “appeal of the innovative product”. Chandrasekhar counters this by saying “any attempt to overlay these so called “business practices” only end up distorting competition and consumer choice and will cabelise the internet. It will create a situation which becomes irreversible even with regulation and policy.”