The Telecom Commission (TC), the highest decision-making body in the telecom ministry, on Wednesday approved net neutrality rules that prohibit internet service providers (ISPs) from discriminating between their web traffic.
The decision ensures that internet for Indians will continue to remain non-discriminatory and unrestricted.
The TC has accepted Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's (Trai's) recommendations, which means that ISPs cannot block or throttle any web traffic or offer fast lanes for content providers who pay for the privilege.
The development means that service providers can't enter into agreements such as Facebook's 'Free Basics' or Airtel Zero which proposed to offer only a set of services or websites for free. To use other services, users would have had to pay additional charges. The two services were later banned by Trai.
"The inter-ministerial telecom commission, which met on Wednesday, has given a go-ahead to net neutrality in the country. This should come into force almost immediately," said telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan.
However, emerging and critical services like remote surgery and autonomous cars that may require high-speed internet lanes have been kept out of the ambit of net neutrality rules. The Department of Telecom has to define the technologies that will be allowed the exception where telcos will be allowed to use traffic management practices to maintain the quality of service, Sundararajan said.
Trai submitted its recommendations backing net neutrality, the principle of an open internet, to the commission in November. The hotly-debated topic, which has gained prominence since 2015, had activists saying the internet should not be regulated based on the content and everybody should get equal rights.
However, telecom operators say that as the traffic is going through their infrastructure, for which they have spent crores of rupees, they need to get some control to manage the traffic.
India's stand on net neutrality also came at a time when the US had repealed its free internet rules and chose to allow internet providers to charge more for certain content or giving preferential treatment to certain websites through commercial agreements.
The commission on Wednesday also approved the new telecom policy - National Digital Communications Policy 2018 - for seeking approval of the Union Cabinet, Sundararajan said.
The draft of the policy, brought out in May, proposed to address the problems of the sector and enhance ease of doing business by reviewing licence fees, spectrum usage charges and universal service obligation fund levy - all of which add to the cost of telecom services.
The policy approval comes amid a debilitating financial crisis in the telecom sector, largely triggered by price wars since Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Jio's entry. The latest entrant's free voice calls and dirt-cheap data offers have forced incumbent players to offer low tariffs, which have hit their bottom line.
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