TRAI to give its views on net neutrality soon, govt confident of achieving total digitization by year-end

New Delhi: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is expected to come out with its final views on net neutrality in ‘a couple of months’, its chairman R S Sharma said today. He said that the Department of Telecom had sought a comprehensive view on net neutrality.

Speaking at the CASBAA India Forum 2016, he said TRAI had a month earlier ruled against Facebook’s Free Basics programme, upholding net neutrality and leaving a level playing field for all players. “No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content,” the TRAI said in the order on discriminatory pricing of data content.

“No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content,” the order said. The matter came to a head when Airtel decided to charge separately for Internet-based calls, but withdrew its plan later after facing public protests.

He admitted that the regulations had not addressed various other concerns related to net neutrality in India but said TRAI had issued a consultation paper on the subject and also received various responses from both broadcasters and telecom service providers.

Sharma acknowledged the challenges and opportunities as the country witnesses the fourth phase of Digital Addressable System (DAS). He said, “TRAI is not here to promote legacy systems in cable TV where a structural monopoly exists. With the objective of providing the right of choice to the consumers, we will allow the march of technology. At the same time, for healthy growth of the sector, it is crucial to strike the right balance between all the stakeholders through a constructive dialogue.”

Taking lessons from the evolution of the telecom industry, Sharma urged the stakeholders in broadcasting to actively collaborate on issues like ‘infrastructure sharing’ and ‘set-top boxes’. “Today five or six telcos are willing to share one mobile tower showing how sharing and competition can go hand in hand. This can materialise in the broadcasting space as well. While TRAI has no plans to make infrastructure sharing mandatory, it may tweak the existing licensing system to provide support to the stakeholders who are interested in the idea,” he added.

The issue of interoperability of the set-top box was discussed at length and TRAI’s S K Gupta stressed on the importance of pushing the use of a common set-top box by different operators. He pointed out that cost of procuring and maintaining set-top boxes weighs heavily on the balance sheets of MSOs, LCOs and digital TV companies. He also said that interconnected agreements between LCOs and MSOs can give two-way cable networks to the end users.

Information and Broadcasting Ministry Joint Secretary (Broadcasting) R Jaya said “Phase IV of cable TV digitization is one of the most prominent routes to broadband connectivity which is key for providing services to citizens. It is high time for the industry to understand the value of interconnect agreements.”  She also reassured that MIB will complete its cable TV digitization drive by the end of 2016.

At a later session, TRAI principal adviser U K Srivastava said that the regulations were being prepared on the basis of the responses received. Addressing a session on whether OTT can make a dent in India, he said OTT was now driving telecom service providers. Regulations were therefore needed to prevent manipulation or misuse. He did not rule out the possibility of another consultation paper in view of changes in technology. Essentially, he said the process had to be open and inclusive.

Answering a question, Srivastava said it was too early to talk about carriage fee etc., but the regulator would want to ensure that the consumer pays for the services he receives.   

The forum examined the ripple effect of the country’s digitization initiative, bringing together all the stakeholders including multi-system operators (MSO), local cable operators (LCO), DTH players, satellite technology providers, and regulators, among others was Digital India: The Four Phases of Cable Enlightenment.

CASBAA’S CEO Christopher Slaughter set the tone by establishing the relation between the digitization of the cable TV system in India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India campaign.

Later Ministry Director (B and C) Neeti Sarkar said the ministry has minimal intervention on the content side of the broadcasting industry. “We have made our procedures smoother by allowing single window clearance at the time of launching a new channel. Having said that, there has always been room for dialogue with all stakeholders,” she said.

TRAI advisor Sunil Kumar Singhal said that it is time to bring consumer at the centre stage and then create regulations. He said, “There is a trust deficit among stakeholders. In the last few years, significant investments have been made in the digitization drive. Now it is time for us to monetize these capabilities.”

Ministry special secretary J S Mathur talked about the recent developments in the media and broadcasting industry. “At the Ministry, the pace of permissions has scaled up. In the first three phases of digitization, we covered 70 million (7 crore) households. We also realize the need for a broadcasting policy and are willing to have more related conversations with all stakeholders,” he said.

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