Ram Sewak Sharma

The recommendations supporting net neutrality are essential in the India context as the Internet will play an ‘extremely’ important role for delivery of various services, including those offered by the government as well as for financial inclusion, the Chairman of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, R.S. Sharma, said in an interview. He added that there was no need for a world policy on this issue.

TRAI recently came out with recommendations on net neutrality. How would one ensure these principles are not violated?

The principles of net neutrality have been clearly articulated in our recommendations to the Government of India. The broad principle is that all traffic on the Internet will be treated. Equally, you cannot discriminate. We had earlier issued recommendations stating that there can be no discrimination from the price perspective. Now, we have recommended that you cannot give prioritisation, you cannot create fast lanes, you cannot throttle or slow down the speed.

However, there are two caveats — one is the exception, and the other is exclusion. Exclusion is of things which typically don’t ride on the public Internet; for example, time-critical applications where the quality of service is of paramount importance.

Exceptions mean certain situational things; for example, disaster relief work for which traffic might need to be prioritised. There might also be traffic jams on the highway and traffic management practices will need to be employed.

These practices must be transient and should be in place only till the time situation persists. They should be proportionate in the sense that you cannot completely block a road. You should apply methods proportional to the gravity of the situation. Lastly, there should be full disclosure as to what you did and at what point in time.

The proportionate, transient and the disclosure part, are very important. They bring about a lot of transparency. However, there may be certain violations of this. For example, proportionate may be subject to interpretation. As we go along, there may be multiple implementation issues which can be monitored either by a government agency or through some other third party agency.

We thought because this is such a dynamically evolving situation and tools and technology will continue to evolve, prescribing tools and methodologies, and hard coding them, will not be a good thing. So, TRAI has suggested to the government a multi-stakeholder body should be entrusted with the job of monitoring the exceptions, violations. That is the deep thinking. Also, the industry is in the best position to device these methods. The industry here is not merely the telecom industry, but also advertisers, broadcasters, academia, and NGOs.

One of the reasons we suggested this was that we have a parallel in the broadcasting sector called BARC. This is also a multi-stakeholder body where we have broadcasters, advertisers, and MSOs and this seems to have worked fine.

There will be a body and then there will be some executives for that.

Once the government accepts our recommendations for a multi-stakeholder body, we will give them terms and conditions of who should be the members, how they should operate and what should be the execute structure, etc.

What then happens to the ongoing consultation on OTT services?

We had brought out the paper in March 2015, but it did not reach any conclusion. Then we brought recommendations on differential pricing of services, Voice over IP and now Net neutrality. So, a lot of developments have taken place, and even the OTT landscape has changed. It is a lot about the videos now. Now the issue is what next. While the issue OTT is connected with Net neutrality, it is not central to it. So, we wanted to keep these two separate.

In the near future, as soon as possible, we will bring out a consultation paper on OTT. It will cover all issues raised in the original paper, minus the ones that have been dealt with. We will take into account the inputs that we had received at that point in time and also seek further comments from stakeholders.

FCC is not in favour of Net neutrality. Can we work in silos?

That is fine. We are talking about our ecosystem partners and how they should treat traffic on the Internet. That is our policy. In the U.S., they have a different view, and they will have a different policy.

Each country can exist with different policies. There is no need to have a world policy on this issue because ultimately that policy will affect the consumers and the service providers of that country.

I recently meet Ajit Pai, and we discussed multiple issues, including net neutrality and we both agreed what Mr. Pai or FCC is doing is for America. There are no contradictions, and you cannot say that the USA should have followed our policy or that we should have followed theirs.

We had said in the beginning that our policy is in the Indian context and the development stage that we are in vis-a-vis the Internet. The Internet for our country is a significant platform on which government services and various other services are going to ride, including financial inclusion.

Just to give you an example, many service providers have acquired Payments Bank license. They may be different legal entities, but they are connected at some level. Similarly, there are Payments Banks which are not service providers such as India Post. If the service providers are free to treat traffic on the Internet differently, then what could have happened is that the service providers would have given preference regarding pricing and the fast lane to customers of their bank and could have throttled communication from India Post. This is not what we want.

The Internet is actually a platform for innovation and transacting various types of services. It is crucial that from our perspective, it is kept free. It is not a matter of ideology. It is a matter of sheer pragmatism that we have taken that decision.

What role do you see TRAI playing in cybersecurity space?

Obviously, every telecom service provider is making sure that their pipe is secure. Even for Net neutrality, an exception that I didn’t mention is cybersecurity. TRAI recently issued a paper on privacy, security, and ownership of the data in the telecom space. We will be discussing some issues of cybersecurity there too.

The topic is critical, but not limited to telecom service providers. It also concerns devices, the Internet itself. In our limited space, we are trying to figure out who should be the owner of the data. For example, I call you.

Now that call log, who does it belong to? To you or the service provider? Similarly, there is data protection and privacy. My telephone number goes to some fellow, and he can make unsolicited calls and messages.

That is not right. What we proposed to do is that if our consultation results in some recommendations, we will hopefully be providing them as inputs to the Justice Srikrishna Committee which is looking at the data protection and privacy law.

You were talking to Apple on the issue of your DND app. Any headway there?

No, there has been no headway, unfortunately. The issue of unsolicited messages and calls is a big problem in our country. TRAI had made a mobile application which allows users to manage such communication.

Right now, Apple users are unable to use that application because Apple does not provide the APIs to connect to our application. Hence, people cannot complain. It’s a severe problem because today we see that the app is very very effective and is able to nip the trouble in the bud substantially.

Do we have the data on call drops based on the new stringent norms?

No, we do not have the data yet. We will have that in January. These norms became applicable from October 1, and we get the data quarter wise. Also, using stringent norms is not appropriate, these are different norms, and you can’t compare.

Operators have sought more discussion.

We have framed our regulations after discussions with them. There is a whole consultation process. It is not a question of not discussing. We had consultations running into at least 5 to 6 months, more than that maybe. What we have mainly done is that we have taken care of two issues – one is temporal where certain towers remain out of action for long period of time, and other is geographical where towers in certain areas are just out. These two issues have been taken care of in the new methodology.