Trai firm on free data to consumers in non-discriminatory way

Telecom Tower, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai)
Regulator Trai has stuck to its recommendation of allowing free data to consumers in non- discriminatory manner by third-party aggregators while agreeing to telecom department's views that government money can be used for connectivity rather than supporting free data scheme to rural subscribers.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) noted that data had become affordable due to tariff war in the telecom sector, and that "concern with regard to availability of affordable data services has been mitigated".

"...the authority tends to agree with the views of DoT (Department of Telecom) that a larger focus is required on connectivity, content availability in local language and digital literacy. The resources could therefore be effectively utilised to address the said issues," Trai said responding to telecom department's views on its free data recommendations.

In December last year, Trai had recommended that a "reasonable" amount of free data access - say a 100 MB per month - be provided to rural subscribers and the scheme could be funded from the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).

However, the DoT subsequently pointed out that cost of an internet enabled mobile handset was a bigger "obstacle" than the tariff of internet access, and that the latter had already been addressed to an extent through market competition.

The DoT questioned whether it would be worthwhile to provide a subsidy to those rural subscribers who already owned smartphones. The telecom department opined that the applicability of the proposed scheme was "limited", thus undermining its reasonability and tenability.

Trai, on its part, justified its recommendations saying they were in sync with the larger objectives of the USO scheme. It also highlighted that India had the highest unconnected population in the world, as per state of Broadband 2017 report.

At the same time, Trai stood firm on its other recommendation relating to introduction of third party 'aggregators' to facilitate and incentivise free data.

The regulator asserted that the mechanism suggested by it in this regard had enough safeguards to protect against discriminatory behaviour by an aggregator for or against a telecom service provider. The proposed model also provided for aggregator declaring the cost for providing free data to consumers, thus ensuring "complete transparency", it added.

Trai also emphasised that in the mechanism suggested by it, an aggregator was under an obligation to provide services in an operator-agnostic manner', meaning that no telecom operator could be denied the services of an aggregator.

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