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Net neutrality is a 21st century battle

  By Vijay Darda | 27-04-2015

To say that all of us using smartphones in India, and in 2014 this number was pegged at 117 million, and is expected to cross 200 million 2016, are all for a unhindered access to the internet is to say that we as people do not want to have anyone restricting our right to sunlight. Just as sunlight is the birth right for everyone, unhindered right to access internet is also our right. But then it would appear that by initiating a public debate through a 118-page discussion paper, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has cast a shadow on this right. The TRAI certainly wants to put in place some rules and regulations that would impact the present free regime of internet access. Union telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has assured the parliament that everyone should have access to the internet, but then he did not agree with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s demand that the TRAI initiated debate be stopped, and the government should bring a law on its own. Now, Prasad has promised access to internet, but he is yet to spell out the conditions of that access.

The debate is summed up by two words — Net neutrality. As the TRAI says in its discussion paper: “Net neutrality (NN) is generally construed to mean that TSPs — the service providers like telecom companies Airtel and Reliance — must treat all internet traffic on an equal basis, no matter its type or origin of content or means used to transmit packets. All points in a network should be able to connect to all other points in the network and service providers should be able to deliver traffic from one point to another seamlessly, without any differentiation on speed, access or price. The principle simply means that all internet traffic should be treated equally.”

Let us use an example to understand the issue. Supposing the internet access is like an everyday dish — say sambar vada. The telecom companies argue that you can get this dish at different prices at different places. So, the sambar vada at your neighbourhood café tastes better, and you pay far less for it, as compared to the price that you are prepared to pay for it when you enjoy the same dish at a five star hotel. You have the choice, and the market offers you this opportunity to choose and pay accordingly. The internet service providers, through the TRAI discussion paper, have brought up this question of differential services and higher tariffs for it. Having paid more than ` 1.20 lakh crores for the spectrum, they are looking for ways and means to not just recover this money, but profit from this investment.

To have an idea of the money involved just look at this hypothetical calculation that gives the size of the sweepstakes. For instance, just one telecom company has 200 million subscribers, and it charges Rs 30 per month — a rupee per day for a missed call alert service. Supposing only half of the subscribers used missed call alert service, and then say Facebook were to follow the same pattern, and get high speed ( five star sambar vada) access from this company and charge the same a rupee a day the earnings would be the same ` 300 crores per month or Rs 3600 crore per year. This is one from one company and from one popular social media service. No one in the telecom sector is willing to discuss the numbers involved in this game, but there is no denying that the government, the telecom companies and the service providers like Facebook and Skype all are keen that this huge mass of cash rich consumers who are having fun at the internet all start shelling out something for this service. The ‘cash less democracy’ of net neutrality is quite an irritating thing for all of them.

However, we have not heard the “M” word in this debate so far. The debate is being presented in totally different terms like security, fair play, level playing field and what not. No one is arguing that having extracted its pound of flesh by selling the spectrum, the government also needs to put the balm of differential tariffs for the telecom companies to heal their wounds. “Otherwise, the companies shall bleed red to death”- is the common unsaid refrain.The reality is that this is the 21st century and innovations and products are technology driven. For instance, telecom service providers gave us the Short Messaging Service (SMS) for instant delivery of text messages on phones.

Now, there is a Whatsapp route for sending not just text, but pictures and all sorts of files. More importantly, Whatsapp does not cost a paise, and you pay just for the usage of the network. For the consumers, if this bleeds the telecom service provider, then it is not just their concern. Similarly, if the government cannot snoop on whatsapp, like it can on SMS, this is their problem. The solution cannot be found in charging the consumers for whatsapp or other apps. In short, if the growth of technology is leading to problems in other areas, it is basically for the companies and the government to find revenue neutral solutions.

So long governments and companies are used to making money at the expense of the consumer at every step, but the fierce support for net neutrality that forced one such net-based company Flipkart to walk out of AirtelZero, that was supposed to offer differential access has its own message. No government or company can really afford to take this route as the people want the principle, ‘Same network, same rules”, to be applied without any discrimination.

The timeline for the public responses to the TRAI paper has expired, and after assessing the feedback it is expected that it would forward its recommendations to the government. Interestingly, TRAI chairman Rahul Khullar’s three-year tenure comes to an end in mid-May, and this sets some kind of a deadline for the issue to be settled. However, defining net neutrality in legal terms is a tough task, and even the Americans who pioneered the technology are struggling with it.

Before I conclude…

We touched the rock bottom in public apathy when the 41-year- old farmer from Dausa, Rajasthan Gajendra Singh died by hanging in full public view at a rally of the Aam Aadmi Party. The event make us hang our heads in shame. The continued agrarian crisis that has claimed the lives of lakhs of farmers across different states has shown our inability to find a solution to the problem. But Gajendra’s death added another dimension to this failure. It is also now our collective failure to be sensitive towards human life.


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Net neutrality is a 21st century battle


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