Since remote work, online education, telemedicine, and reliance on e-retail becomes critical for the foreseeable future there is a need for authorities to take specific action. IFF has written to the DoT and TRAI suggesting that these interventions must look toward overcoming the digital divide, appreciating the importance of the internet and mobile services as an essential utility, and protect net neutrality. Towards this IFF recommends concerted stakeholder dialogue, evidence based interventions to support network capacity, efforts to use government funds towards providing free access to internet services to underprivileged/essential cohorts of people, ensuring all areas have access to high speed internet access and expediting the implementation of a net neutrality enforcement framework.
The lockdown has seen greater reliance of many segments of the populace on information and communications technologies, in particular the internet. People are using the medium for various purposes such as remotely working from home, distance learning, ordering essential items via e-retail, and telemedicine purposes. More generally, people also use it to stay in touch with their friends, family and loved ones, which is crucial to people’s mental health in these trying times.
In various guidances and notifications, telecommunication and internet services have been repeatedly classified by the Ministry of Home Affairs as essential items. In this regard, the importance of internet and telecommunications access has assumed considerable importance during the current public health crisis. It also brings with its own set of policy and regulatory challenges which must be addressed. If unaddressed, we believe there is a risk that the novel coronavirus may exaggerate the digital/technological divide; stress underlying network infrastructure and risk network neutrality.
Prior Correspondence with the DoT and TRAI
In a letter dated March 18, 2020 IFF previously wrote to the Hon’ble Minister of Communications and copied this to the DoT and TRAI. In it we anticipated that there may be a risk of undue pressure on underlying internet and mobile networks due to shifts and likely increases in network usage. Therefore we suggested authorities:
- Conduct periodic reviews of telecom infrastructure in consultation with telecom and internet service providers, content providers, startups and consumer facing organisations. Here, we stressed on the importance of preserving principles of net neutrality.
- Encourage voluntary pledges by telecom companies towards not terminating people’s connections, due to an inability to pay their bills.
- Urged the Central Government to issue an advisory that States and Union Territories should not issue internet suspension or restriction orders under the Telecommunications Suspension Rules, 2017.
So Why Are We Writing This Time?
This is because there are new threats which are emerging, since the commencement of our over month long national lockdown.
1. Threat to Net Neutrality
In a letter dated March 21, 2020 the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) wrote to TRAI requesting for clearance of charges for voice and data for certain websites and telephone numbers. Additionally, an Economic Times report suggested concessions to zero rate certain essential websites pertaining to government services, ecommerce and digital payments applications like the BHIM app, without being charged for data during the lockdown period.
To be sure, TRAI’s Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016, which ostensibly prohibits zero rating of data tariffs in India does allow for exemptions. However, we must consider such developments along with the fact that COAI has also written to online video content providers, to reduce their bitrates to alleviate stress on underlying network infrastructure. By referencing measures taken by online content providers in jurisdictions like Europe, we have noticed that most participants in the Indian market have complied and reduced their offerings to SD bitrates.
These measures have been taken by industry and have been taken with little evidence available to the public of the actual stress being placed on India’s underlying networks, owing to the national lockdown being excessive. India’s internet infrastructure has traditionally been characterised as underutilised, and therefore even according to existing capacities should be able to handle a 20 percent surge in network traffic. This fact may be contrasted with reports which found that mobile internet use (India’s wireline subscriber base remains very less) only increased by 10 percent in the month of March 2020. Pertinently, in Tier 1 metros the increase was even more modest at 3-5 percent.
Thus, it may be concluded that without appropriate review and response mechanisms, there is a threat to India’s net neutrality regime. As such net neutrality in India remains imperfect owing to the fact that we are yet to finalise a definition of what falls under reasonable traffic management practices, and actual means of monitoring and enforcement. This lacuna in the framework has meant internet access providers in India can avoid compliance net neutrality obligations, under licensing conditions, with relative impunity. We have previously written to the government about these concerns in March and May, 2019 respectively.
2. Risk of the Digital and Technological Divide
It is reasonable to conclude that the pandemic is sure to hit those working in informal sectors and marginalised communities at large the hardest.
A recent report on The Print and an article by Mr Osama Manzar (Digital Empowerment Foundation, Founding Director) are instructive in this regard. The Print article discusses how the coronavirus is shifting students to distant learning situations reliant on online/IVR based classes/educational setups. This means that in areas like Delhi, students from underprivileged backgrounds are at a distinct disadvantage owing to a lack of digital literacy, no availability of supporting equipment in the household like laptops and smartphones, chargers, and no access to high speed internet connections.
Similarly, Mr Manzar’s article also communicates that aside from internet access, many people from informal/marginalised backgrounds do not even have access to basic mobile connections as well. He illustrates this with the recent exodus from urban to rural areas after the announcement of the national lockdown. In it many people travelled in groups-- to the detriment of social distancing protocols. This is because the availability of phones with talk time to make calls, was often restricted to one or two persons in large groups. And in such times of hardship, the ability to make a timely phone call to a friend or family member can be a question of life and death.
Keeping the above considerations in mind we urged the Ministry of Communications, DoT and TRAI to collectively consider the following interventions:
- Regular Review and Reports on Impact of COVID-19 on Internet Capacity: India should have twice a week meetings between DoT, TRAI, TSPs/ISPs, internet exchange points, CDN providers, cloud service providers, content providers, small businesses, video conferencing app developers, consumer groups and so on, to ascertain the actual impact COVID-19 is having on internet capacity and quality of service. The findings from these meetings along with support evidence should be published for the public at large. This will be analogous to the approach adopted by European authorities like BEREC.
- Consider Means to Expand Telecom Infrastructure Capacity: Although India’s internet infrastructure has traditionally been characterised as under utilised, Indian authorities must be alive to the possibility that there may be a need to consider means through which it can ease network maintenance and deployment of internet access services. India must consider steps in this regard. For instance, it may consider discussions with TSPs to maintain an open dialogue on the need to expand network capacity, upgrading network equipment, capacity expansions of base stations in mobile networks, etc. It should also consider the need to free up access to particular airwaves to ensure networks are up and running in an interference free manner.
- Expedite Final Recommendations and Implementation of TRAI’s Net Neutrality Consultation: Considering advances being made by internet access providers which seek exceptions to the net neutrality frameworks, it becomes even more imperative that India expedites its finalisation of its definition for reasonable traffic management practices. At the same time there is a need for more robust monitoring, enforcement and institutions. Therefore, it becomes necessary for authorities to conclude its findings on the latest TRAI consultation on traffic management practices and a multistakeholder body for net neutrality.
- Consider Means for Free Wi-Fi Hotspots, Access to Laptops/Smartphones and 4G Router Availability: We have urged DoT and TRAI to consider commencing an initiative which deploys funds available under the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF). Along these lines, we also recommend they consider possibilities of working with the Ministry of Home Affairs and state governments to gauge availability of funds under the National Disaster Relief Fund and State Disaster Response Funds. These funds should be used toward facilitating public wi-fi hotspots, 4G routers, internet devices and so on, in particular targeting benefiting students from underprivileged backgrounds, informal workers, healthcare workers, first responders, and people from marginalised communities.
- Urge industry to not disconnect people’s internet/mobile services, and provide free data during lockdown period: Indian authorities and access service providers should identify vulnerable groups who would benefit from such targeted interventions, which help with the response but also help bridge the digital divide. We would also suggest TRAI and DoT work together with access providers in ensuring that people can have uninterrupted access to their internet and mobile services even if they fall behind on their payments or recharge schedules. Under utilised funds in USOF may be a useful tool in this regard as well.
- Urge States and UTs to Maintain Access Full Speed Mobile and Internet Connectivity During Lockdown: We urged central authorities to consider ways to limit government powers to issue directives which throttle the internet. Therefore, we recommended the issuance of an advisory which urges states to not issue any directions which suspend internet access or impose restrictions on accessing high speed internet.
- Link to IFF's representation with recommendations on net neutrality respecting measures toward internet access to the Department of Telecommunications and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India dated 24.04.2020 (click here)
- Link to IFF’s representation to the Minister of Communications, Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad dated 18.03.2020 which has been copied to both the DoT and TRAI (click here)