The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has published new regulations on net neutrality, prohibiting operators from providing discriminatory tariffs based on content. The ruling prohibits the provision of ‘zero-rating’ data services, where operators include unlimited free access to certain applications or websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, as part of a package. As a financial disincentive, the TRAI has set a flat penalty of INR50,000 (USD735.8) for each day that a provider contravenes the new regulations, to a maximum of INR5 million.
The new rules – dubbed the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016 – followed a public consultation on the matter of price differentiation in 2015. Summarising feedback from stakeholders, the TRAI noted that on the one hand, price differentiation helps drive up internet penetration and lowers the cost of utilising the internet, but on the other, it negatively impacts competition and transparency and would have ‘far-reaching consequences…on the structure of the internet.’ As such, the regulator has moved to impose a blanket ban rather than approaching the matter on a case-by-case basis: ‘Keeping in view India’s large number of internet users and content producers, both of which are rising exponentially, the Authority has taken a view that prohibition of discrimatory tariff for data services is necessary to ensure that service providers continue to fulfil their obligations in keeping the internet open and non-discriminatory.’
The regulations came into effect immediately (8 February), with the following caveats. Packs, plans or vouchers with unexpired validity subscribed by a customer before the start date of the regulations will not be affected, allowing customers to make full use of plans that they have already paid for. Further, providers may reduce tariffs for accessing or providing emergency services or at time of ‘grave public emergency,’ leaving the gate open for cellcos to offer free access to over-the-top (OTT) apps such as WhatsApp and Viber during natural disasters.