Country leapfrogging tech; must guard against walled gardens, says TRAI chief
In his first interview since the government approved TRAI’s net neutrality recommendations, the outgoing Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, R.S. Sharma, talks about its importance for India. He also counters allegations of bias against himself as well as objections raised against TRAI’s recommendations for public Wi-Fi hotspots.
The Telecom Commission has approved TRAI’s recommendations on net neutrality. What now in terms of implementation and policy?
At an institutional level, TRAI is very happy that our recommendations have been accepted in toto by the government. The Internet is an extremely important platform and all the innovations are happening around it.
The point is that western countries have had technology development but in our country we are going from being completely offline to completely online. So, we are leapfrogging technology and not following the development process as was in other countries.
From that perspective, a lot is going to depend on the Internet whether it is health, education or agriculture. They are all going to ride on this platform. Therefore, it is particularly important from a developing country’s perspective that the Internet remains non-discriminatory and innovative.
Therefore, the gatekeeper should not be allowed to control that platform or in a way create walled gardens. But at the same time you have to be very pragmatic.
We have created two exceptions — special category of applications for example remote surgery and special situations such as a natural disaster. We have not hard-coded it. We have left it to the government. Even on the enforcement, we did not want to hard-code the methodology. We feel that an industry-led body will be able to do a better job.
On policy, I am sure it is something that the government will work on. We have made specific recommendations on what changes should be included in licensing conditions.
Do you think India now takes a leadership position on net neutrality, especially as the U.S. has repealed its net neutrality rules?
I don’t want to be very boastful about this because that is not what the recommendations are for. We made these keeping Indian conditions and requirements in mind.
But it is true that our recommendations are being studied worldwide. I have been to a number of forums around the world and have found that there is a lot of interest in what India has done.
Operators have criticised TRAI’s proposal for public Wi-Fi, citing security issues…
The criticism is completely unfounded. Nothing that has been proposed is against the law. We have proposed an architecture to create a truly interoperable grid of Wi-Fi hot-spots.
To respond to the criticism that people should not be allowed to offer such services without licence, let me ask a counter question: currently, luxury hotels offer Wi-Fi facilities to their guests. Do they have a licence to do so?
Likewise, many restaurants and institutions, including airports provide these services. They also do not have any licence, not even a registration.
What we have proposed is that all the players in this ecosystem should be registered with the DoT. In our view, this will truly empower people and will fulfil one of the important promises of Digital India viz. ubiquitous and affordable connectivity.
Again, the security-related criticism is absolutely bogus. I challenge anybody to demonstrate how it will compromise security.
I would say that, at their worst, these criticisms are motivated and at best, there is a lack of understanding and appreciation of what has been proposed.
In your tenure, you have faced criticism with operators alleging regulations to be biased towards a particular operator?
Let us first understand that it is not R.S. Sharma, but TRAI which takes decisions. As for me personally, I would say that that throughout a career as a public servant spanning 40 years, I have strived to work to the best of my capabilities. God has also given me the courage of conviction.
I have seen some of the criticisms. People have a right to make a fair criticism. However, making unsubstantiated allegations of bias etc is a bad idea, which achieves nothing but [ends up] unfairly discrediting an institution.
TRAI works under the TRAI Act within the framework of law. We work with full transparency and bring out our recommendations/regulations/orders after consultations and discussions. You may not agree with the decision and may be aggrieved by it. In that case, challenging the decision in an appropriate legal forum is the right way.
Unfortunately, many times decisions are first criticised in the media with allegations of bias etc. and thereafter are challenged in court. It is similar to declaring somebody guilty first and then filing a complaint in the court! In any case, I am not looking for a certificate of appreciation from them.
Have you seen positive impact of the new benchmarks introduced to measure call drops?
We taken a lot of steps to improve quality of service. First, we proposed to the government a change to the laws so that we can levy penalties for non-compliance of licensing conditions. We then increased the frequency of the road test so as to make it more transparent.
We also created an application called MySpeed to test data speeds. We [also] created a new framework for quality of service. The benchmark of less than 2% call drops was hiding many things such as underserved areas or situations where a particular tower was not repaired or rectified for a long time.
We devised a metric which captured both these situations. I think this is a huge improvement over the earlier mechanism. Two quarters have passed since October, when the new norms was implemented. We have levied financial disincentives on those who have not passed the benchmark… My sense is that they are working well. Of course, to have a long-term impact, we will have to see the performance over a couple of quarters.
We also realise that because of VoLTE, there was a new way of delivering voice. There were two problems — call mute and call setup time. We had consultations and we will bring out recommendations soon on whether these two additional parameters should be included in the call drop norms or not.
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