Thursday 19 May 2022
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TRAI recommends limited free data to rural subscribers

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New Delhi: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has recommended that the government provide a limited volume of free data, 100 MB approximately, every month for consumers in rural and remote parts of the country. The regulator is of the view that this scheme, if implemented in a non-discriminatory fashion, could help significantly boost government’s agenda for a digital economy. The TRAI stressed that free data provided through this scheme should be service provider agnostic.

TRAIThe TRAI said the government must look for bringing in third parties (data aggregators or content providers) to facilitate this scheme with transparency and fairness. The regulator estimated this scheme can cost Rs 600 crore to serve 50 million rural area subscribers using up to 100 MB of free data.

The TRAI added that government can use Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to bear expenses for this initiative. The Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Act, 2003 grants statutory status for USOF with an aim to utilise resources for connecting rural Indians with a reliable telecommunication network. In consultation with TRAI, Department of Telecommunications (DoT) allocates a portion of its revenue generated through Universal Access Levy (UAL) for USOF. UAL is a government cess charged to telecom licensees.

MobiKwik COO Mrinal Sinha welcomed this recommendation saying that once subscribers understand its value, they can start paying for it as long as this model sustains. He also said 100 MB is a lot of data sufficient enough for their wallet users to make thousands of transactions every month.

The regulator has warned that aggregators should not be designed to bypass ‘The Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations’. According to this regulation, aggregators cannot sign exclusive contracts with any Telecom Service Provider (TSP) or Internet Service Provider (ISP) for endowing their access.

TRAI 2Net neutrality campaigner and Internet Freedom Foundation Co-founder, Nikhil Pahwa, said this aggregator model derides differential pricing regulation and has the same effect as a zero-rating platform. Zero-rating is a token word describing schemes which provide free data services access to specific content for subscribers of a specific service provider.

In February, the regulator has banned differential pricing on the Internet, showing exit door to Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero. In May, the regulator issued a consultation paper explaining 3 possible models for providing free data services — reward model, toll-free model and direct money transfer model. The reward model aims at providing data usage or voice usage credits to subscribers accessing specific websites or applications. The toll-free model primarily focusses on providing free browsing access to users. The direct money transfer model allows reimbursements to mobile users directly in their accounts.

The regulator stated that the toll-free model could potentially violate regulation on differential pricing while Direct money transfer model is difficult to implement because a lot of subscriber information needs to be shared with third parties. The regulator placed their bets on reward model saying it is viable to implement without impacting regulatory compliance.

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