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TRAI's 100MB free data for rural areas to rake up net neutrality debate?

  • TRAI recommends 100MB free monthly data for rural areas.
  • The scheme could be funded from the Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF).


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TRAI has recommended offering 100MB of free data to mobile phone subscribers in the rural areas in order to give a big push to the government's cashless economy. The telecom regulator also suggested that the scheme could be funded from the Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF), according to a PTI report. The funds of which reportedly stand at Rs 47,167 crore as of October, which many believe are underutilised. 

Providing 100MB free data to 50 million smartphone users in rural areas may cost around Rs 600 crore. The recommendation adds that in order to 'increase participation of other entities for incentivising free data a third-party (aggregator)' must be introduced. However, the schemes introduced must be TSPs-agnostic and non-discriminatory. 

It should be noted that through the year the much sought after discussion has been over exploring ways to provide free data to the remote areas without violating the ban on differential pricing. We've so far been hearing about three models - toll-free, direct money transfer and TSP-agnostic platform. The toll-free model is reportedly ruled out as it would mean an agreement with a content provider. "A rewards based model which reimburses a user for accessing a pre-selected website has the same impact as zero-rating and is a net neutrality violation," Nikhil Pahwa, a volunteer of SavetheInternet campaign told ET. 

As we know, earlier this year TRAI had banned differential pricing, leaving no room for services from Facebook and Airtel that violated net neutrality. It isn't quite clear if the new recommendations will trigger the net neutrality debate as TRAI has made it clear that the scheme must be TSP-agnostic without any arrangement between content provider and TSP, aggregators who want to provide free data will have to register with DoT and the company must be registered under the Indian Companies Act, 1956. Though TRAI recommends there must not be any arrangement between the carrier and aggregator/content provider, but many have questioned the aggregator model which would essentially mean rewards related to a particular app/website. It would have the potential to violate the net neutrality principle that aims at providing a level playing field to all.

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