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TRAI blocks Airtel, Vodafone Idea premium plans

The telecom regulator has blocked Bharti Airtel ‘s Platinum and Vodafone Idea ‘s RedX premium plans that offer faster data speeds and priority services, saying such schemes could lower the quality of mobile services for those who haven’t opted for them.

The decision drew a sharp reaction from Voda Idea , with a senior official saying the telco was “surprised” at the haste with which the authority acted “over the weekend,” without giving it an opportunity to respond.

Besides the impact on quality, a Telecom Regulatory Authority of India official said the watchdog is evaluating whether the offers breach net neutrality rules “as the telcos appear to be reserving a lane on a public data highway that uses public resources (spectrum) for exclusive use of rich customers.” But this aspect didn’t figure in the letters sent to the two telcos.

In near-identical letters dated July 11, TRAI asked Airtel and Vodafone Idea to “withhold, with immediate effect and until further orders” the two plans “to facilitate a detailed examination of both schemes” by the regulator. It asked them to protect the interests of users who have already enrolled for the offers. ET has seen a copy of these letters and the operators have been told to respond in a week.

A senior Vodafone Idea executive deplored TRAI’s directive, saying “it’s shocking to receive a letter over the weekend, asking us to block our RedX plan without any opportunity to respond on an important matter such as tariff, especially as there is no violation of tariff regulation on this plan.

“The executive said VIL was surprised at the haste with which this action was taken, which can lead to inconvenience to customers, given that the telco’s RedX plan was filed with TRAI last November and in May after modifications. He said the RedX offer has been in the market for eight months and many customers are already on board.

A VIL spokesperson said the company “is committed to serve its customers with the best-in-class offerings and high-speed 4G data across all markets.”

Airtel did not comment on TRAI’s directive or on whether it would seek legal redressal, but said its Platinum offer is part of an effort to raise the bar in terms of service and responsiveness, and that the telco wants to deliver “the best network and service experience to all our customers”.

The telcos are exploring legal options but no decision has been taken as yet, people aware of the matter said.

Last week, Airtel offered faster data speeds on priority to Platinum users, who would also enjoy preferential services at call centres and retail points. VIL introduced its RedX plan in November, offering up to 50% faster speeds and special services. Both offers are seen as efforts to widen the base of higher-paying customers to boost average revenue per user.

TRAI’s letter breaks a spell of relative peace in the sector, which – before Reliance Jio’s entry in September 2016 and soon after – had seen the telcos at loggerheads with the regulator over issues such as predatory pricing, segmented offers, points of interconnection and interconnection usage charges, all of which went to court.

The regulator wants Airtel and Vodafone Idea to clarify if customers of the two plans enjoy higher 4G speeds at the cost of service deterioration to other users. It asked if the promise of network priority could mire the overall quality of services, given that they are not creating additional capacity. It also asked if they have given “a performance commitment or reserved network resources” for Platinum and RedX users.

Net neutrality experts aren’t convinced about the two offers breaking rules around a free web.

Prasanth Sugathan, legal director at Software Freedom Law Center, said “offering faster data speeds does not amount to a net neutrality breach… that could happen only if Platinum and RedX customers are offered differential speeds to access content on select websites.”


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