TRAI Rules "No Free Basics" in India

In a move that comes as no surprise, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has ruled that programs such as Facebook’s “Free Basics” are covered by rules related to non-discriminatory tariffs, and has banned such offers.

For that reason, TRAI has banned such programs in India. Simply put, Internet service providers cannot offer free access to packages of applications curated by the ISP.

Having done so, TRAI has framed this aspect of the network neutrality decision as a matter of common carrier tariffs, rather than as a matter of content freedom.

“No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content,” the TRAI decision says.

As has been the case elsewhere, though, a distinction is made between managed services and “Internet” apps. “This regulation shall not apply to tariffs for data services over closed electronic communications networks,” the decision states.

As has been the case in other countries, Indian regulators say they have concerns about the impact of such “no charge” access to some applications as a tariff fairness issue.

In essence, the argument is that programs such as Free Basics create favored packages of content assets. In other settings, as TRAI essentially notes, that would not be an issue. TV broadcasters, radio broadcasters and others have editorial discretion where it comes to the content they wish to broadcast or publish.

In this case, TRAI essentially deems the “level playing field” more important than other values, including the obvious benefit of allowing more people of low income to use mobile Internet apps.
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