'People love Maggi, but do they want lead too?'

January 04, 2016 12:45 am | Updated September 22, 2016 09:55 pm IST

File Photo of TRAI chairman Ram Sewak Sharma.

File Photo of TRAI chairman Ram Sewak Sharma.

With nearly two million responses by December 31, 2015, the telecom regulator’s consultation paper on differential pricing for data services, has triggered a loud debate and massive advertising spends by Facebook to generate support for its Free Basics platform that would allow free mobile access to some websites.

Over 1.4 million Facebook members, through their support petitions, back Free Basic. Net neutrality activists, who argue that all websites and users should get equal access on networks and Free Basics must not act as a gatekeeper, sent over three lakh petitions against differential pricing, drawing support from start-ups and academics. The regulator extended the deadline for comments on the issue by a week to January 7. TRAI chairman Ram Sewak Sharma speaks on the issue in an interview to The Hindu. Edited Excerpts:

What are your views on Facebook’s Free Basics platform?

It may be a great idea (but) in fact, we have not mentioned it in our consultation paper which asks whether telecom operators should have the discretion or authority to levy different pricing for different websites. Can differential pricing as a policy be accepted?

From what I know, its current model is that Facebook will get some websites and some telecom carriers (telcos) on their platform. Those telcos will provide free access to certain parts of those websites on the platform. So, one of the ingredients of Free Basics is free provisioning of telecom data (or) differential pricing.

So, in a way, if you are consulting about differential pricing, it impacts Free Basics. But there can be multiple products developed using this differential pricing architecture... and this architecture is being consulted upon, not Free Basics. It is not that they are not linked.

We have also asked Reliance Communications to please put this (its Free Basics service was to start on January 1) on hold because it is using one of the ingredients in this paper.

Should the regulator leave it to consumer choice and market forces alone?

The problem is that net neutrality is a larger issue…Let’s not dismiss it as minor stuff. It may be minor to begin with, but it is an issue related to freedom of choice.

What do you make of the shrill public response to your paper and the pressure it creates on the regulator?

Let’s understand this. A consultation paper always says this is question number 1, please answer it with justifications. We expect stakeholders who participate in the consultation process to provide meaningful inputs. Just saying I support or do not support this without giving any reason, does not mean anything. With such inputs, what decision can you take?

Secondly, I had asked a question on differential pricing. They have responded saying: I love Free Basics.

You may like a product, can this imply you love differential pricing also? For example, Maggi was found to have lead. People love Maggi, but do they want lead too? I am not saying that this is lead. It’s just that your liking for a product doesn’t imply that you like all its ingredients.

That is why I am explaining that I need views on questions asked. Respecting the fact that there are 14.34 lakh people with such responses, we have extended the deadline for them to come up with the right answers, not I love Free Basics.

Are you happy with the consolidation in the telecom sector?

I think so. Both the issues of spectrum sharing and spectrum trading, the (norms for) which have been put in place are working quite well, and if there are some issues or obstacles, we are ready to look into that. My sense is it is necessary that harmonisation of spectrum and consolidation takes place. There are adequate checks and balances in place to ensure fair competition in the market.

Corrections and Clarifications:

This article has been edited for a factual error.

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