There seems to be a growing sense on the part of India regulatory officials that current application “zero rating” plans of two types violate the “spirit” of network neutrality principles, though some might suggest a final ruling is unlikely in the near term.
And the issues has become a major political issue, apparently. In fact, some might legitimately argue that India has become the current center of struggle over net neutrality policy.
Ironically, one unintended consequence of strong net neutrality rules that prohibit zero rating is that Internet adoption could be slowed and innovation thwarted.
The Progressive Policy Institute argues that bans on quality of service mechanisms, including zero rating, undermine innovation for real-time applications like telemedicine and high definition voice.
Many would argue that offering subsidized access to key apps is a proven and effective way to acquaint non-users with the value of Internet access and apps. That has proven to be the case in the Philippines and elsewhere where Internet.org has tested the concept.
Potential low-income users also suffer when subsidies such as zero rating are outlawed, the Progressive Policy Institute argues.
Still, the India Department of Telecommunications is said to have a "strong view" that 'Airtel Zero' and 'Internet.org' plans--which operate differently--do not follow net neutrality principles.
It is a horrendously complicated matter, one might well argue, and might not be resolved soon. The emerging “strong view” also is said to be “preliminary.”
“Any final decision regarding the two services will be taken only once the expert committee of the ministry submits its recommendations on the entire gamut of issues related to net neutrality,” one source says.
Further key input on network neutrality rules also are necessary and likely to take some time, as there is a change of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India leadership underway.
TRAI Chairman Rahul Khullar is leaving office and a new chair will likely need some time to develop a “detailed understanding” of an issue that is highly contentious and complicated.
So a delay of TRAI recommendations is expected.
The government is said to be investigating how other countries, including the United States and European region are dealing with the issue.
"It is a complex issue and all efforts are being undertaken to ensure that any best practices, if they are in place somewhere, are also considered by us," ETTelecom.com reports an official’s comments on the subject.
Airtel Zero might be considered the more controversial of the programs, though it is a well established concept in retailing.
Under the Airtel Zero program, application providers can subsidize data charges when Airtel customers use their apps.
The principle is similar to the notion of “toll free calling,” where a business pays for long distance calls made by its prospects, customers and partners. The “800” number is a good example.
Internet.org is different. Under that program, any app provider, without paying any money to anybody--not the mobile service provider and not Internet.org--is offered free of charge to users, who do not have to buy a data plan.
The intent is to allow consumers who do not use the Internet to sample key apps and learn the value of the Internet. Any app provider can apply to be part of Internet.org.
But some object to Internet.org principles that apps need to be optimized for low-bandwidth connections.
Many who have experienced similar low-bandwidth situations can understand the performance challenges and the value of optimizing apps for better performance under challenging conditions.
Indeed, “better performance” is a recurring concern. It is why Google Fiber was launched, for example.
So one might hope the examination of network neutrality both thoughtful and detailed. The issue is horrendously complex, has many subtleties and might have direct bearing on how fast demand for Internet access is stimulated, in India and elsewhere.