The TRAI and the government had, in February, banned any discriminatory charging for digital content flowing over their networks, and said that all bits should be charged equally, irrespective of whether they are songs, videos, text or something else.
In other words, it prohibited charging differential rates based on the end-use of the bits that flow through their networks. Instead, it said, charges can only be levied based on the quantum of data and the tariff plans of subscribers.
This was seen as a far-sighted and empowering net neutrality legislation by entrepreneurs and consumers.
However, the TRAI also left a loophole in the legislation by stipulating that the prohibition applied only to content that was connected to the Internet. If the content was not connected to the Internet in anyway (was not sourced from, moved through or destined for the Internet), telecom operators were free to charge whatever they want and however they want.
Bharti Airtel has now written to the TRAI saying that it would like to offer video content through its mobile network to its consumers, but wouldl also like to have differential pricing for the data so consumed.
This, Bharti Airtel pointed out in its letter to the TRAI, was consistent with the rules that the regulator, but could be seen as anti net neutrality, or in violation of the principle of net neutrality.
Net neutrality principle says that all bits are created equal, and cannot be charged or prioritized differently based on back-end deals by the carrier.
Bharti said a big global content provider has shown interest in setting up a closed user group consisting of the users of Bharti Airtel. Videos will be circulated in this group only.
“Prior to arriving at any business decision on such an arrangement, we request the honorable authority to kindly advise us if we can go ahead with it,” it said in its letter to the TRAI.
“We further submit that while such an arrangement with the global content provider over CECN along with its exclusive offerings to our customers would be compliant to the regulations, it may well be viewed by some stakeholders in violation of principles of net neutrality.”
WAITING TO HAPPEN
This development was widely anticipated when the TRAI came out with its prohibition and rules, while carving out an exemption for non-Internet content.
In fact, if operators are allowed to set up their own versions of the Internet from curated and hand-picked websites and apps, it could very well result in the death of the neutral Internet in India due to the fact that about 3-4 telecom operators control nearly 90% of the bandwidth to the Internet in India.
If this naturally limited bandwidth is diverted to such quasi-Internets, the cost of accessing the ‘real Internet’ will become prohibitive, with the result that the Internet as we know it today will become a thing of the past.
In its place will be various networks like Airtel Net and Reliance Net, on which each and every website and app will be controlled and possibly even owned by the operator.