Telecom Commission approves new telecom policy, backs net neutrality

The DoT will also frame a policy on net neutrality traffic management
Net neutrality, a controversial issue around the world, has emerged a winner in India. In a heavy-duty meeting on Wednesday, the Telecom Commission, the highest decision-making body in the Department of Telecommunications, approved the net neutrality rules implying internet will remain open to everybody in the country. 

Apart from net neutrality rules, the commission has also approved the new telecom policy — National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018 — aimed at promoting investments, ease of doing business, and emerging technologies like 5G.

The move on net neutrality, which was the biggest decision at the meeting, is in sync with the recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai). It is meant to ensure no service provider can restrict or discriminate in the treatment of content by blocking, slowing down or granting preferential speeds while providing internet access. However, some critical services will remain out of the purview of the net neutrality rules, Telecom Secretary Aruna Sundararajan said after the commission meeting chaired by her.

Reacting to the net neutrality rules, industry body COAI said it has already expressed its support on issues pertaining to non-discriminatory use of the internet, including no blocking, no throttling and adoption of same service-same rules. It said light touch regulatory approach should be adopted so that innovation was not hampered by the net neutrality rules.

Trai had already barred telecom operators from offering differential pricing of data, putting an end to Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero. The regulator had recommended a change in the licence conditions to restrict any form of discrimination in Internet access based on content. “We are not accepting any walled garden. This is the same net neutrality principles which have been articulated by DoT earlier, and subsequently by Trai and reaffirmed by the Commission now,” the secretary said.

The DoT will amend the licences of telecom operators so that they comply with the principle of net neutrality. Trai had given the recommendations on the subject last November, favouring open Internet policy for the country.

While Internet of things (IoT) as a class will not be exempted from net neutrality, certain categories of IoT which come under critical services will be left out. Other than that, the DoT secretary said in the age of autonomous vehicles and digitised healthcare, certain types of traffic need to be prioritised. The DoT will form a committee to identify critical services and come up with a separate regime for such services.

Explaining the critical services, an official said autonomous vehicles on the roads would be given priority over a social media chat. Similarly, in  healthcare, where a remote diagnostic surgery is taking place, internet traffic has to be prioritised because even a millisecond of connectivity drop can be fatal.

The DoT will also frame a policy on net neutrality traffic management after getting recommendations from Trai on the subject.

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On the new telecom policy, Sundararajan said, “…we must ensure digital infrastructure is provided at the earliest. Therefore, India must have ease of doing business and enabling policy environment.” Key aspects and enabling provisions to reduce the levies have been mentioned in the policy and these would have to be translated into specific proposals, which would be done once the Cabinet approves it, she said. 

The Commission on Wednesday approved a proposal to rationalise double taxation for virtual network operators (VNOs)  as well. It is an important step to encourage provisioning of services from VNOs. Despite 67 firms taking up licences for VNOs, the services were not launched because they were subject to double taxation and in certain cases three times cascading taxes.

Another proposal approved by TC includes setting up of over 1 million wi-fi hotspots across all the gram panchayats. The DoT will provide Rs 60 billion as viability gap funding to service providers to set up these hotspots. The DoT will come out with a tender for this and the project will be completed by December. In addition, a proposal to fund pilot projects through Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund for newer technologies has been cleared too.
Tangled web: the story so far
  • May 2015: A Department of Telecommunications (DoT) panel releases report on net neutrality
  • February 2016: Trai bars discriminatory tariffs for data, putting an end to Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero
  • March 2016: DoT seeks Trai’s recommendations on net neutrality
  • January 2017: Trai issues consultation paper on net neutrality
  • November 2017: Trai issues recommendations on the subject
Other major decisions
  • Approves National Digital Communications Policy, 2018
  • Removes double taxation on virtual network operators
  • Approves project to set up over 1 million WiFi hotspots across all gram panchayats with an outlay of Rs 60 billion
  • Funding pilot projects in alternate technologies to provide connectivity

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