New Delhi: In a huge setback for Facebook’s free internet scheme, telecom regulator TRAI has banned differential pricing for data in India.
This means that data prices must be uniform, and that companies cannot make some content available at cheaper rates. A violation will lead to a stiff fine of Rs. 50,000 per day, the regulator said.
“This (ban) will disallow any program or project which works on the architecture of differential pricing,” said the regulator, stressing that “agnostic content” is the operating principle, though it added that data charges can be dropped during emergencies like flooding.
Plans that currently offer discounted rates for some content will not be yanked, customers can use them till they expire, said the regulator, adding that it is the “convenience of users” that is the over-riding concern.
The decision firmly rejects Free Basics, championed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who says the scheme will bring free internet to millions of Indians in rural areas.
In partnership with Reliance in India, Facebook planned to offer pared-down web services on mobile phones, along with access to Facebook’s own social network and messaging services, without any charge.
TRAI suspended Free Basics a few weeks ago, arguing that it violates the principle of net neutrality, the concept that all websites on the internet are treated equally.
Differential pricing would put small content providers and start-ups at a disadvantage, say critics who have rallied online to lobby TRAI. Those who have taken on Free Basics include founders of some of the most successful internet companies in India, as well as faculty at prestigious academic institutions like the IITS.