The Indian Net-Neutrality Debate

In the last few weeks, on Social Media circles where I am present, there have been shrill cries on alleged “Net-Neutrality” compromises in India based on an opposition to Airtel Zero plan and Internet.Org setup by Reliance.

I have been pointing out the flaws in the arguments and have received a lot of flak. An analysis of arguments from the other camp led me to conclude that there is a lack of understanding on what is “Net-Neutrality”, that there is a “transference of anger” from another problem and triggered some thoughts on future needs.

Here I would like to share some of those thoughts…

Defining Net-Neutrality

Net-neutrality is a term used to enable access for all Internet based services without being blocked from access by the intervening network providers except as provided by the Law of the Land (e.g. torrent sites, pornography and VoIP calls to PSTN in India are banned). As a corollary, when a prohibitive tariff is newly introduced or a speed throttling mechanism is newly introduced, discriminating a set of Internet based services, net-neutrality is said to be violated (See image below).

Discrimination per user

Discrimination of a user’s access based on their tariff bundle contract with the network provider cannot be termed as a Net-neutrality issue (especially in a regime where tariff bundle changes & number portability are allowed in real-time). As part of their license conditions, the network provider is eligible to have differing tariff bundles across users that allow or disallow users to access certain services (e.g. in India, National Long Distance Services, commonly called STD, was available under certain postpaid service bundles only with higher initial deposit). This is not called non-neutral behavior (See figure below).

In the case of Airtel Zero and Internet.Org, the bundle with certain Internet based services was offered for free (without charges for the underlying data plan) as a Digital Inclusion principle to bring in certain underprivileged consumers. This is not even as bad as the STD example shared earlier because all subscribers with a data plan can access these services while a few without a data plan would also be able to access these services. Nothing discriminatory at all (not by the operators, at-least)!

Whence, this anger?

So, is the anger amongst a section of Indian consumers justified?

If we agree that Net-neutrality is perhaps the wrong argument and probe further, one gets to see that there is a transference of anger from being saddled with data plans that the consumer seems to feel are too expensive for networks that don’t provide good throughput.

Personally, a few confided that if an operator has enough money to provide zero-priced bundles to new prospects, they should first provide better network services for their current paying subscribers or offer lower priced bundles for them.

The truth could be different too…

Let’s assume that there is merit in this demand for better network quality and lower prices (there will always be 😉 ). But, it may not actually be the excess money with the operator driving these zero-price bundles. It could be a subsidy from the provider of Internet based services or even an establishment of a captive CDN by the provider of Internet based services.

In fact, I saw a news item where, to a query from the regulator about these bundles, the operators have raised queries back on regulation of Internet based services! This news and the fact that the provider of Internet based services is creating bundles of such nature in other countries too (Indosat in Indonesia also announced a similar bundle) makes me suspect that the tariff bundle was conceived and put together by the provider of Internet services and not the operators.

So, neglecting current users and trying to get new users hooked on to their services is probably an act of the providers of Internet services than the network providers! Please note: This is just my contribution to conspiracy theories and don’t know this for a fact. 🙂

Way Forward

The future is full of such nebulous boundaries between carrier and carried content. I feel that the current regulatory setup in India should be enhanced to address this. I think that TRAI, the telecom regulator, has a role, but as a sub-committee under a larger regulatory body for Digital Services. There could be other sub-committees for IoT, Internet Services, Mobile Apps etc. apart from Telecom under the Digital Services Regulator.

This is now emerging as an important need.

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