With an aim to support the Centre’s drive of creating a cashless ecosytem, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on Monday recommended that a “reasonable” amount of free mobile internet should be provided to rural subscribers every month. This scheme, the costs of which are suggested to be met from the government’s Universal Service Obligatory Fund (USOF), would be facilitated by third-party aggregators, which are agnostic telecom service providers, Trai said.
“In order to bridge the affordability gap for the persons residing in rural areas and to support government’s efforts towards cashless economy by incentivising digital means, the Authority recommends that a scheme under which a reasonable amount of data say 100 MB per month may be made available to rural subscribers for free,” the sector regulator said. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) charges a cess to telecom operators under the USOF, proceeds from which are used for increasing telecom connectivity by setting up infrastructure across the rural and remote areas of the country.
“Scheme for free data must be TSP-agnostic, must not involve any arrangement between the TSP and the aggregator/content provider and should not be designed to circumvent the “The Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations,” notified on 8th February, 2016,” Trai said. On February 8, Trai had prohibited various schemes that provided free access of internet to subscribers of specific service providers for accessing specific content. At the time such differential pricing schemes were introduced by Airtel (Airtel Zero), and Reliance Communications with Facebook (Free Basics).
“The authority strongly reaffirms that allowing TSPs, content providers or ISPs to strike agreements to differentially price data based on content would distort the market and is therefore not permitted,” Trai said.
“Moreover, when consumers are introduced to the internet through subsidised content, it is suggested that they are expected to proceed to become paying consumers of data service,” Trai said. It has recommended that the aggregators providing free data service will need to register with the Department of Telecom and it should be a company registered under Indian Companies Act, 1956. “The validity of registration shall be five years. The registrant shall not either directly or indirectly, assign or transfer the Registration in any manner whatsoever to a third party either in whole or in part,” the regulator said.
Earlier this month, Trai Chairman R.S. Sharma had highlighted that a “lot of work” was needed to increase broadband connectivity in the country. In its recommendations issued on Monday, Trai has also said that increased broadband access for rural population could enhance overall value of the network. “Greater broadband access, particularly for large parts of the rural population, can be the force to drive integration of the unconnected and the underserved in economy, thereby helping to enhance the overall value of the network,” it said.
“As an increasing number of government services are also being electronically delivered, expanding rural internet access has become a matter of urgency … ,” Trai added.