TRAI to give differential pricing view by month-end: Sharma

As the whole issue of Net neutrality continues to simmer, telecom regulator TRAI is firming up its view and will come out with its stand by the end of this month.

TRAI to give differential pricing view by month-end: Sharma

New Delhi: As the whole issue of Net neutrality continues to simmer, telecom regulator TRAI is firming up its view and will come out with its stand by the end of this month.

An open-house discussion on differential pricing of data services, which was held today here, saw huge participation from telecom operators, consumer rights groups, industry bodies and individuals.

While telecom companies and Facebook stuck to their guns pitching for allowing differential pricing, a key aspect of the entire debate, Net neutrality activists opposed any such move.

"It was a very lively consultation. The hall was full, a lot of people participated and gave their views, comments, thoughts and I think we will take all these into account. And we hope that by the end of this month, we will come out with our position," TRAI Chairman R S Sharma told reporters after the discussion.

Stakeholders can send in their additional comments by Monday evening, Sharma said.

Asked if TRAI will also come out with a consultation paper on Net neutrality, he said, "I cannot at this point of time say what TRAI can do in future in the larger issue of Net neutrality, but we will certainly take a call."

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and Facebook are locked in a war of words over the differential pricing debate.

According to the regulator, the campaign by Facebook to defend its free Internet platform, Free Basics, in India is "wholly misplaced as the consultation paper is on differential pricing for data services and not on any particular product or service".

Facebook has launched a massive campaign to project its Free Basics platform as a tool to spread Web connectivity.

The regulator had earlier asked RCom to keep the commercial launch of Free Basics on hold till it finalises its recommendations on the matter.

When told that the service is still continuing, Sharma said, "As far as we know, we had requested the telecom company concerned to keep the commercial launch of the service in abeyance. They have confirmed to us in writing that the commercial launch has been kept in abeyance."

On their part, telecom operators have argued that differential pricing for data is critical to growth whereas those opposed to it say it amounts to curbs on freedom of choice to access the Internet.

"Telecom operators have themselves said they have plans to offer free voice calling at night. Let telecom operators offer free Internet at night from 12 am to 7 am instead of trying to judge who should see and what one should see," Paytm founder and CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma said during the discussion.

He is of the view that in this era, Indian entrepreneurs, service providers and companies should get equal access to every consumer in this country.

"Telecom operators have their own content, messaging and payment services. Once they will be given a choice to give somebody free Internet service of their own choice, I can take a bet today that they will not let other companies' service go free and they will put their own service for free," Sharma said. 

While telecom operators, including Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, Reliance Communications and their respective

associations have supported differential pricing for data services, Internet service providers have railed against it.

In their defence, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone India have cited tariff forbearance to justify their position.

Reliance Communications, on its part, said TRAI had allowed differential pricing for voice and apply the same to data tariffs.

According to Sistema Shyam Teleservices, the existing tariff regime of forbearance should continue as the consumer should get the benefit of deciding the price of a service.

However, Star India took the line that the differential pricing has raised a fundamental challenge.

"We see this as a back-door entry by telecom operators, where with help of spectrum, they are using it for deciding the market where they should be only an intermediary and also take care of IPR issue," a Star India representative present during the discussion said.

Industry body AUSPI and COAI sought to draw a distinction between differential pricing and discrimination. "We should not confuse differential pricing with discrimination.

Classical model of marketing is on a differential product for different people. There should be same policy for data and voice."

The Broadband India Forum, in its submission, said data growth is doubling due to innovation in tariffs and India's priority is to take up the cause of the Internet.

Medianama, a digital information portal, stressed that the Internet should be kept the way it was and there is a need to bring the cost of access down.

Times Internet said zero rating and differential pricing are synonymous with "predatory, and will kill the Internet".

However, divisions run deep in the industry, with Assocham endorsing it and CII and Ficci against such move.

The whole debate of Net neutrality started across the country after Airtel decided to charge separately for

Internet-based calls, but pulled back later after people protested. The row escalated after Airtel launched free Internet platform Airtel Zero and later Facebook came out with its platform, renamed as Free Basics.