Triumph for net neutrality as TRAI bans Airtel, Vodafone Idea's priority services

In a 10-point questionnaire sent to Airtel and Vodafone Idea, TRAI has reportedly asked telcos to explain as to why offering higher 4G speeds to one set of customers would not impact the quality of services for other users

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Key Highlights

  • TRAI has asked Airtel and Vodafone Idea to stop their preferential services
  • No direct reference to these services violating net neutrality rules
  • Telcos have a week's time to respond to the TRAI's questionnaire
  • TRAI to examine if preferential treatment affects the quality of services for other users

Within a week of launching higher 4G speeds for its Platinum postpaid customers, Airtel has been asked to take its preferential services down by the telecom regulator TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India). Vodafone Idea, which has an identical RedX plan, too has been asked to put its services on hold.

In a July 11 letter by TRAI, the regulator has reportedly asked telcos to continue preferential services provisioned for the existing users, but barred them from making fresh provisions for new Platinum users. TRAI has said that it will analyse the impact of these preferential services on non-RedX (or non-Platinum) users, and until then, telcos cannot offer these services.

In a 10-point questionnaire sent to Airtel and Vodafone Idea, TRAI has reportedly asked telcos to explain as to why offering higher 4G speeds to one set of customers would not impact the quality of services for other users. Though TRAI has not reportedly mentioned that these services violate net neutrality rules - approved by Digital Communications Commission (DCC) in July 2018 - there are evidences to probe these services from that angle as well.

As per net neutrality rules in the country, telcos cannot discriminate against content and services by blocking, throttling or granting them higher speed access. In short, the DCC has banned any form of discrimination for telecom services. In 2017, TRAI too had come out with a set of recommendations that stated that "improper (paid or otherwise) prioritisation may not be permitted."

The telcos are supposed to reply to TRAI's questionnaire by July 18. "In the interest of examination, the TRAI has stopped these preferential services. We are putting together responses for TRAI as we believe that these services are not against net neutrality principles, and there are operators around the world who offer similar services," a senior telecom executive says. Meanwhile, reports suggest that Vodafone Idea has telecom tribunal TDSAT against the TRAI's orders.

The whole matter pertains to Airtel's announcement last week where the telco offered its Platinum postpaid subscribers, those who have monthly plans of Rs 499 and above, faster 4G data speeds on their devices. The telco recalibrated its network (by deploying advanced tech at the back-end) that allowed its high-paying customers to latch on to its network faster. Faster connection to network translates into faster speeds (download and uploads), seamless voice calls and an overall better quality of services.

Airtel's announcement was similar to Vodafone Idea's launch of RedX plan last November. RedX claims to offer up to 50 per cent faster speeds and special services to its premium subscribers.

While Airtel has over 16 million (postpaid) users covered under this scheme, the exact number of Vodafone Idea could not be ascertained.

This is not the first time telcos like Airtel are struggling with regulatory issues for their services. In 2016, TRAI stopped zero-rated services like Airtel Zero and Facebook's Free Basics after huge uproar. Soon after its launch in April 2015, Airtel Zero had to face severe criticism from net neutrality proponents, and the service was shut down within a year.

Airtel's Platinum plan is part of its Airtel Thanks programme which also includes two other categories of customers - silver and gold. The silver and gold plans cover prepaid customers; platinum plans are generally bought by postpaid subs. Airtel's Platinum customers get a suite of exclusive benefits such as customised Platinum UI (user interface) on Airtel Thanks app, and preferential service at call centres and retail stores.

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