India bans sponsored data while US binges-on

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India’s telecoms regulatory authority (TRAI) has curtailed sponsored data services in the country, while American operators continue to load up on free or otherwise subsidised data services.

The ruling forbids operators or service providers of any kind from offering differentiated data services at a discriminatory price point. After a lengthy consultation period, where it considered a number of possibilities for alternative subsidised data opportunities, it concluded that under no circumstances are discriminatory pricing strategies allowed for content. An early precedent set in the ruling document says:

“Regulatory oversight is required so that the tariff framework follows the broad regulatory principles of non-discrimination, transparency, non-predatory, non-ambiguous, not anti-competitive and not misleading.”

One of the services close to the core of the ruling is the Free Basics service offered by Facebook in India via its subsidiary. Free Basics allows users to download the app and get free access to content submitted by partners of the service. While the TRAI doesn’t explicitly cite Free Basics at any point, it does strongly hint at it – in a way in which only convoluted regulatory proceedings can.

“Under one design, an entity created a platform wherein content providers and TSPs can register,” it said. “Subject to the approval of the platform provider, the customers of the TSPs, registered on the platform, will be able to access those websites (either in full or only certain content of those websites) which are listed on this platform.”

Today’s ruling has some clear tie-ins with the net neutrality debate, and while the TRAI doesn’t ever directly say “net neutrality” in the ruling at any point, some of the justification for its ruling suggests it was at least worthy of some pretty lengthy consideration.

The argument in favour of the ruling in India says larger content providers which can spend money on data sponsorship will be the ones to benefit, while smaller content providers or startups will be at a disadvantage if they are unable to afford the cost. This, in principle, is one of the main debates surrounding net neutrality, and clearly continues to rage.

Funnily enough, over in the land of free video streaming, Verizon has gone in the completely opposite direction by introducing a free streaming element to its Go90 content app. The carrier has confirmed certain video-streaming partners of the service can be viewed with no data charge for pay-monthly users, similar to T-Mobile’s BingeOn. One can only presume there’d be staunch opposition to any attempts by the FCC to curtail free content streaming, also known as zero-rating.

Incidentally, the FCC sent out letters to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile in December requesting more information on their zero-rated video-streaming services. While the regulator insisted this was a benign information gathering exercise, one presumes the zero-rating, net neutrality, video streaming discussion has a long way yet to run.


  1. Andy Tiller 08/02/2016 @ 5:57 pm

    It’s very hard to see how this ruling is in the consumer’s interest. I get the idea that we don’t want the Internet and Telco giants deciding for us which content can be downloaded without incurring data charges, but when sponsored data is available for all comers (as it is with, for example) then there is no discrimination. You might as well tell larger companies that they are not allowed to spend money on advertising because smaller companies can’t afford it.

    This debate always gets associated with net neutrality, but in reality it’s a different issue. There is no difference in how data packets are treated on the network; the only difference is who pays for the data traffic. That should be a commercial issue, not a regulatory one. The end result of rulings such as this is that consumers must pay their own data charges, which means that many (especially less well-off citizens in developing markets) won’t be able to afford to use the mobile Internet.

  2. seema choudhary 09/02/2016 @ 6:41 am

    if its allowed in India then-TSP could control the data explosion(via OTP) and content provider wants to earn through the content..

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