All major telecom operators in the country came out in support of differential pricing, even as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India gets closer to formulate a policy that could affect the very nature of the internet in the country.

On Thursday, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) held an open house consultation on the differential pricing of data services, gathering telcos and digital rights activist under one roof.

After putting out a consultation paper to all stakeholders — telecom companies, content providers, consumers — in December, having collated all comments and counter comments from all sides of the argument, Monday’s meet was one last verbal slugfest between those who support differential pricing, i.e grading data services on a price scale from free to expensive based on an internet plan, and those opposing it and thus supporting Net neutrality.

Echoing each other closely, all the telecom operators present supported differential pricing, calling it necessary for innovation, for industry growth and beneficial for the consumers. Abundant comparisons were made between the information industry and others where differential pricing had worked as a beneficial industry practice. Bharti Airtel called for minimalistic intervention in telcos deciding tariffs, and that a one size fits all approach, that is one kind of tariff for all internet services, was not good for industry. It would stifle innovation”.

Reliance Communications said that consumers want to pay for use-specific services” and not everything, and that the industry was at a point where data growth needed differential pricing. Tata Communications argued that Trai was also bound to protect the interests of telecom service providers along with consumers. These interest lay in differential pricing. Telenor said that just as airline industry operated well with differential pricing for the same seat in the same plane, the information industry needed to do so too.

Infact, internet services were compared to all sorts of consumer goods, — plane seats, difference between services called similar to differences between soaps, pizza — till Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project pointed out that the internet was not a marketplace but a public resource” and that it needed active citizenship. Activists said with differential pricing websites such as Dalit Camera and CGNeT Swara, that work respectively for Dalit rights and rural issues, would not exist, as services would have to work according to terms set by telecom operators.

Her views were echoed by other digital rights activists, and Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama, an online digital and technology journal, added that access to a few services was not access to the Internet. Other activists said that this industry was not like others as it was linked to democracy and providing services based on affordability would damage that. The Save the Internet Coalition argued that the internet was not a two-sided marketplace” as telcos called it and that Internet users were also producers and content creators. The relationship was not a linear consumer-provider one and the Internet was not just a bunch of content or services but the idea that everyone could access it all across borders.

As the debate took this philosophical turn, some activist pointed out that all telcos spoke like a single entity, which was dangerous for net neutrality. As was their model where content creators would have to strike various deals with various providers, existing in a permission-based economy”.

A few young entrepreneurs at the meet argued strongly against differential pricing, as they said they could compete with the best, such as Facebook, based on skills, but not based on resources, which would matter if differential pricing came through.

Originally published in DNA.