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We had a problem with Free Basics because it gave free data only to those who went through RCom pipe
May, 30th 2016

After coming out with historic rules banning discriminatory pricing, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's chief seems to have had a rethink on giving free access to data or rather a curated version of the Internet. The only disclaimer is that telecom operators should not do it. In an interview with Malini Bhupta, TRAI chairman Ram Sevak Sharma says he has no issues with platforms providing free access to select websites, so long as the access is secular and operator agnostic. Edited excerpts:

Your consultation paper explores ways to provide free data to users. Do you believe that in poorer countries, access to a curated version of the internet (like Free Basics) should be given free to the people?

I believe access to the internet is more important than a free internet. The spread of connectivity is most important. I have no reservation in giving free data to people. What I have a reservation against is the business model of giving free data when you visit a particular website through a particular pipe. Poor people are not necessarily riding on that one pipe (operator); they're spread all over.

Free Basics had essentially tied up with Reliance Communications. So, if you went through the Reliance pipe, these sites were free. If you went through the Airtel or Vodafone pipes, these sites were not free. It's as though a shop in (Delhi's) Connaught Place is giving discounts but to only those who come in a bus provided by Mr X. If you don't come by that bus, no discount.

That is not a good thing. If you give a secular discount, it is fine. So, the paper we have come out with actually explores the possibility of free data or discounted data which is agnostic to the pipe. You have heard of a toll- free number and that is the same concept. It does not matter whether you are on an Airtel or Vodafone network; the customer does not pay. We are exploring a toll-free equivalent in a data world, whereby you visit a website and if there was a way to know who you are and your bank account number, then the website can transfer that money or data back into your account. Overall, the customer pays nothing. The paper we brought out on Differential Pricing had raised the question on providing free data such that it is pipe-agnostic.

So if a Gigato develops a platform, which offers free access to select websites on it, is that fine? Why is Trai getting into business models? Just leave it to the market.

We have floated the paper to get answers. Gigato is an implementor of that. Ultimately, the money (for the data) will be paid by the websites or portals. We will evaluate it technologically and if facilitation is required, we shall do it. We will leave it to the market but we are also interested in (the) Digital India (government programme). Suppose there is an e-governance site and the government promoting it might not want people to pay any charge to visit these sites. We are exploring that and electronic communication is our business.

We might find we have nothing to do with it and in that case, we shall not do it. We will figure out if any intervention is required or not. Without entering into an agreement with the telco, if there is a method by which the charge to visit the website is paid to the telco, there is no problem if the consumer gets free access.

Telecom operators will want to improve penetration and usage by stimulating demand through using the lever of pricing. Globally, telecom operators do offer content specific or website/app specific plans. Like, Vodafone has a Spotify plan and T-Mobile has Binge On, which are zero-rated plans. What is wrong with that?

I don't regulate content players. I regulate telecom operators. My view is that whichever entities I regulate, we have to ensure a balance of interest. So long as it is within the framework we have established, there is no issue. Discriminatory pricing prohibition was Trai's response to the net neutrality issue from a rate point of view. We will make a recommendation to the government on the broader principles of net neutrality in a pre-consultation paper. The government will adopt a final call on it, while we will decide on pricing issues.

Globally, telcos are going to court and challenging net neutrality laws. Do you expect that to happen in India as well?

Going to court is part of everyone's right. There is a process established by law and that will happen.

The net neutrality debate has compelling arguments on both sides. Does that make your job more difficult?

In our limited understanding, we shall do what is good for the country. America and the European Union have different models. We will be guided by what is good for India. The internet is important for India as all services are going to ride on it - banking, health, education and transactions. All this is part of the vision of Digital India. We will have start-ups and innovations will happen. Hence, it is necessary that we have policies promoting this eco-system.

The problem of service quality remains, though the Supreme Court has given its order on this. What do you intend to do?

Consumer protection is our mandate and we had made a regulation but the SC has quashed it. We have to think of other ways to discharge the responsibility.

The relationship between the regulator and the industry has turned hostile. What is your view?

I don't think so. We are on the same page. There is no contradiction between our expectation on the quality of service and growth of the telecom sector. They are not a zero-sum game. If you provide quality of service, it is good for the industry. We are working for the same objective - growth of industry and customer satisfaction.

Technology is changing at a fast clip and regulators are finding it hard across the world to keep pace. What is your biggest challenge as a regulator?

We try to remain in touch with regulators across the world. Regulatory trends in the world are tracked by us and we have a knowledge base. I agree that there are many new things happening - the Internet of Things, Machine to Machine and new business models. Challenges are vibrant in the sector.


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