Net neutrality: The debate is on again

By Author   |   Published: 4th Oct 2017   12:05 am Updated: 4th Oct 2017   12:11 am
Net Neutrality

Preserving “Net neutrality” means all data on the internet is treated equally and there would be no differential pricing based on content, site or application. However, not all Internet Service Providers want a neutral internet.The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is drafting the recommendations based on the latest round of debate.

What is net neutrality?

According to Wikipedia, Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments regulating the Internet must treat all data on the Internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differentially by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication.

What are the origins of net neutrality?

Net neutrality became the bone of contention when, back in 2007, Comcast, an internet service provider in the USA started restricting bandwidth to its users. In India, the net neutrality debate has its origins in 2014 when Airtel announced charges for OTT(Over-the-top) services like Whatsapp, Skype, Hike and Viber. Instead, Airtel launched a service Airtel Zero that gave free access to a few services.

What is the ISP side of the argument?

The ISPs side of debate on net neutrality is that they are unable to invest in infrastructure -especially in rural India- as they are unable to see themselves recovering their costs, and hence that they should be able to monetise their internet transmission lines. However, the Union minister for Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad asserted that Internet should be offered as a privilege and not be a monopoly of the rich. Hence, TRAI ruled that “No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.” in its Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016.

How are the supporters of net neutrality defending it?

The backers of net neutrality are driven by the ideology that the Internet is leading innovation from the front. It has democratised content creation and dissemination, helping many startups realise internet success. An Internet that is offered on a differentiated basis will only create monopolies as there would be no level playing field for those in the fray. This would hurt the very foundation Internet is based on. They suggest that as more businesses go online, applications would require higher bandwidth, which the ISPs can charge higher for.

What is the stance of the Indian Government?

The Government, for its part, can no longer ignore the debate. It should come up with innovative policies that see to it that both, the ISPs and the users benefit from Internet usage. For instance, it can create a tax-payer friendly regime for Internet service providers to incentivise their growth. After all, the internet penetration is mainly an urban phenomenon, while hovering at 30 per cent and requires ISPs and telcos to invest in infrastructure.

OTT services in spotlight?

According to Wikipedia, OTT messaging is defined as instant messaging services provided by third parties, as an alternative to text messaging services provided by a mobile network operator. An example is the Facebook-owned mobile application WhatsApp, that serves to replace text messaging on Internet connected smartphones. Other providers of OTT messaging include Viber, WeChat, Skype, and Google Allo. Then there’s OTT voice calling capabilities, which, for instance, as provided by Skype, WeChat, Viber, and WhatsApp use open internet communication protocols to replace and sometimes enhance existing operator controlled services offered by mobile phone operators.

In the latest debate, major talking points would include the proliferation of OTT (Over-the-top) services – if they need to be brought under a licensing regime and if increase in service charges are proportionate to the losses in the traditional streams of revenue for ISPs.

What’s the way forward?

TRAI is currently addressing residual issues from a 2015 paper on net neutrality. According to R.S Sharma, chairman of TRAI, “A lot of regulations have also come in between. The world has gone from voice to data. So now we will cull out the residual issues which are still relevant from that (earlier) paper and take it forward. We will take up issues like regulatory imbalance.” The net neutrality supporters are keeping their fingers crossed.