TRAI to hear the public on net neutrality in open house this month

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has started registrations for an open house discussion on its upcoming recommendations on net neutrality.

The open house discussion will be held on Wednesday, August 30 at 9:30 AM in New Delhi. The venue has not been finalized yet, and is likely to be fixed after the regulator gets an idea of how many people are likely to attend.

The regulator has set up a special registration page for those interested in attending the crucial meeting.

The key topic of discussion will be whether or not to allow telecom companies to slow down or block any website, app or Internet service, and if so, under what circumstances.

Telecom companies have asked for broad powers to block or slow down any services, while consumer activists and net neutrality campaigners have warned the regulator against giving these companies such powers.

Broadly, telecom service providers want powers to manage the speeds of at least three types of traffic — video, emerging applications such as remote monitoring, and traffic to their own services and apps (CUG).

While telecom providers say that blocking and slowing down of traffic to certain websites, apps or servers will help them maintain their networks better, activists believe that they will misuse any such power to block or throttle any service or app that competes with their own.

Nearly all telecom providers have a variety of apps — such as those used for watching movies, for messaging, music, reading news, online shopping, social networking, remote camera monitoring and so on.

However, these apps have not had much success in attracting and retaining users as most people prefer non-telco apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Youtube.

Activists fear that if telecom service providers are allowed to speed up their own apps — delivered through what is called a closed user group or CUG — this will result in competing apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Amazon etc. slowing down to a crawl.

This will then be used as a tool to discourage users from accessing such services and for promoting telecom companies’ own apps and services.

The activists’ concern are based on a previous, similar exemption given by the TRAI to telco-owned services and apps from its rules banning discriminatory data pricing. TRAI’s rules allow telecom companies to price data to their own services at any rate they like, thus raising the possibility of unfair competition between telecom companies’ own apps and that of third parties.
Meanwhile, recent days have seen some turf battles between the TRAI and the Competition Commission of India as many of the topics traditionally handled by the TRAI are also the areas that have been handed over to the CCI, which was set up more recently.
The issue of net neutrality, for example, involves the question of fair competition between apps and services owned by the telecom company and those owned by third parties, and fits into the profile of the kind of cases handled by the Competition Commission of India. However, the Competition Commission of India is not a party to the ongoing net neutrality consultation process.