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RCom suspends launch of Facebook’s Free Basics after TRAI missive

Anil Ambani

Anil Ambani

Bowing to regulatory pressure, Anil Ambani-controlled Reliance Communications Ltd has suspended the commercial launch of Facebook’s Free Basics initiative.

“As directed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the commercial launch of Free Basics has been kept in abeyance, till they consider all details and convey a specific approval,” an RCom spokesperson, said in a written statement.

TRAI had asked RCom to hold back the roll-out of Free Basics till the sector regulator completes its ongoing consultation process on the delicate topic of net neutrality. Till last week, TRAI received around six lakh comments on its consultation paper over ‘Differential Pricing for Data Services’ — one of the important issues under the principle of net neutrality.

RCom had already begun a pilot project with Free Basics on its CDMA network. The formal launch was supposed to happen early next year.

“We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected,” Facebook said in a statement.

India is one of the key target markets for Facebook’s Free Basics programme, which was earlier called Internet.org. The initiative enables access of selected apps and app-based services to people from developing countries at zero cost. The Internet.org programme, which counts Reliance Communications as partner in India, has been criticised heavily for violating the principle of net neutrality.

Simply put, net neutrality is the principle that all online traffic should be treated equally. It requires service providers to treat all data on the internet equally and not impose differential pricing or discriminate among users, content sites, platforms and apps, also known as over-the-top (OTT) services.

To counter the opposition to Free Basics, Facebook had recently launched an online campaign where users could send a pre-written email to TRAI, pledging support to Free Basics. The move drew a lot of flak on social media channels.

Net neutrality has been one of the most talked about themes in the Indian technology space this year.

In April, telecom giant Airtel was on the back foot trying to explain the relevance of its controversial platform Airtel Zero which promised free consumer browsing and special promotional campaigns for companies which subscribed to the plan even as e-commerce startup walked out of the platform. Telecom major Vodafone too had to clear its stand on the issue saying it was against carving or blocking the internet.

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