Bharti Enterprises founder and chairman Sunil Mittal (c) with vice chairman Rajan Bharti Mittal and Rakesh Bharti Mittal at a media roundtable for an announcement regarding an educational project in New Delhi, Nov. 23. (Subhav Shukla/PTI)

India’s Telecom regulator TRAI, Nov. 28, recommended measures for non-discriminatory access to all content and services available on Internet with some exceptions as required under government rule, court order and the likes. Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal says more consultation is needed.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, in its recommendation on net neutrality, has cautioned that discriminatory treatment would include any form of restriction or interference including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds.

The regulator has exempted content or services that telecom operators provide within their own network without adversely impacting public Internet. Also, some of the specialized services like remote surgery of patients and some critical Internet of Things that will be identified by the Department of Telecom will be exempted.

“No one owns the Internet… so, it should be open and accessible to everyone,” Trai Chairman R.S. Sharma said, suggesting that service providers should not indulge in gatekeeping of this important platform.

Sharma said Internet is an important platform for the country, especially in the context of innovation, startups, online transactions, various government applications, and the Digital India program.

“So, it is important that the platform is kept open and free and not cannibalized,” Sharma told reporters.

“We have 500 million net subscribers and 1.3 billion population… big things will happen on Internet and it is important to keep it open,” Sharma stressed.

The regulator has recommended that DoT establish a multi-stakeholder body comprising telecom operators, ISPs, content providers, civil society organizations and consumer representatives to monitor and probe violations.

Telecom industry body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) called the recommendation as “narrow definition of net neutrality” to which it agreed in-principle.

It, however, expressed concerns over issues like network expansion, licensing of voice calls and messaging services apps like WhatsApp, Skype, Viber, and Google Duo, that were not addressed by the recommendations.

“We had proposed a broad approach on net neutrality covering national priority of connecting the next 1 billion unconnected people in India and licensing for over-the-top players (calling and messaging apps). All this should have been included in the TRAI proposals,” COAI Director General Rajan S. Mathews said.

Industry body representing Internet firms IAMAI lauded the recommendations, calling them progressive and pragmatic, which recognize the requirements of expansion of digital services in the country.

“Internet in India, unlike possibly in the U.S. or China, is going to be ‘free and open’ upholding the democratic principles,” it said.

IT industry body Nasscom said TRAI’s recommendations will promote equitable access to Internet for every citizen.

“It would ensure a level-playing field for IT and OTT services providers to innovate and customize in India and provide a constantly expanding range of new services relevant to every individual,” Nasscom-DSCI said in a joint statement.

An Edelweiss report said recommendations to exclude content delivery networks (CDNs) from net neutrality restrictions will give integrated operators like Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio an upper hand versus pure-play connectivity providers.

Mittal Believes TRAI Will Have Another Round of Talks on OTT Issue 

Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal said, Nov. 28, he was not aware of the TRAI recommendations on bringing app-based calling and messaging services under the licensing regime, but believed that it would have another round of consultation on the matter.

“Our request was that the OTT players in the telecom arena should have the same rules of the game. I don’t know what are the recommendations on that. I believe, probably, the TRAI will come up with another consultation on the OTT side.

We will see how they develop…,” Mittal told television channel ET Now on the sidelines of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, in Hyderabad.

The telecom operators have been demanding that app-based calling and messaging services should be brought under the licensing regime.

However, the Internet firms have been opposing any such move as it would scuttle innovation, affordable or almost free messaging services and adversely impact people using the Internet.

“The OTT and telecom players must have a level-playing field,” Mittal said.

The telecom operators had complained to the government and TRAI that Internet-based calling and messaging companies were causing a dent in their revenues by providing the same services as there was no need for them to follow the rules and regulations applicable to the mobile services firms.

Speaking to PTI at an event at Barcelona earlier this year, Mittal had said that the telecom operators were unable to match the rates of the OTT players due to a high capital expenditure.

Asked if the telecom companies would be burdened once the recommendations were legislated, Mittal replied in the negative by saying, “They (companies) are there to provide Internet services to all. So, where is the question of burden, I do not get the question here. What does it mean? We are providing Internet services to all. Even today, you buy a pack and use the Internet, so what is the issue?”

Replying to a query, Mittal said it was a false propaganda that the telecom companies would follow discriminatory practices as regards Internet services.

“It is a false propaganda that the telecom companies will be the gatekeepers, there will be discrimination, they will give preference to one over the other. All of it is nonsense and these are being spread by people who are either illiterate or trying to change the narrative,” he said.

Mittal further said his company would not be able to survive if it allowed free Internet access to its customers.

“Hence, net neutrality from the point of view of a non-discriminatory availability of Internet to all is given. So, anyone who preaches—that is the way to go and that is the way it should go—is just talking to people who are already in support of the decision.”