TRAI bans differential pricing, gives Facebook a setback

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In a reversal of sorts for Facebook’s free internet scheme, telecom regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has banned differential pricing for India.

“The ban will not allow any programme or project, working on the architecture of differential pricing,” said the TRAI.

This, in other words, means all content on the Net has to be made available at the same data price. A violation will lead to a fine of as much as Rs 50,000 per day, said the regulator. Of course, the data charges can be dropped in emergency situations such as floods and the like.

Plans which discounted rates for some Net content will not be taken off air; customers can use them till they expire. The TRAI said it is the “convenience of the users” that is the over-riding factor.

The decision on 8 February rejected Free Basics which has been championed by its founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is of the view that the scheme would bring Net access in a jiffy to millions of Indians in rural areas.

In alliance with Reliance Telecom in India, Facebook had planned to offer the web services on mobile phones, along with access to Facebook’s own social network and messaging services free of cost.

But the TRAI suspended Free Basics a few weeks ago thereby arguing that the scheme violates the very principles of net neutrality—the concept all websites are treated equally.

Those who have taken Free Basics include founders of some of the most successful Net firms in India, as well as faculty at prestigious academic institutions like the IITS.

They say if the Facebook scheme is allowed, it would confer gate-keeping honours on the online giant, thereby keeping an eye out on what content users access—whether its own or its partner’s.