Opinion

Why cast the net?

RAJEEV CHANDRASEKHAR | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on April 14, 2015

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The internet is too important to be hijacked by telecom operators

When the Digital India programme was announced in July last year, I had lauded the Narendra Modi government for recognising the transformational potential of the internet for governance and the government-citizen relationship. I have always maintained in Parliament and outside that this vision needed specific policy action. This includes an internet that is easily accessible, affordable and free from intrusive government control.

It seemed almost self-evident that the next steps taken by the government would be to create an enabling policy framework for Digital India. This would include allowing the internet to grow without fetters or discrimination in access — a position referred to as net neutrality.

I had advocated this through my participation in a standing committee meeting on net neutrality in January this year. I had met with very positive responses from the government and the department of telecommunication during this interaction, unlike the representative of the telecom regulator, Trai, who chose to obfuscate.

In a letter to the Trai chairman in January this year I had brought this to his attention; he had in turn promised there would be a fair and open consultation.

Trai, however, decided to throw up some surprises. Its recently released 118-page consultation report on ‘Regulatory Framework for Over The Top services (OTTs)’ takes a highly dubious pro-telecom operator position. It not only assumes the need for a regulatory framework, but also seems to advocate that telecom companies should be permitted to differentially price services (that they consider as utilising bulk bandwidth), or slow down access, through various discriminatory practices.

Equal treatment?

The internet is a network where all information and services are transmitted as data packets that are identical in structure and cost. In other words, all data packets used by consumers are treated equally by Telecom Service Providers (TSPs).

The companies proposing these discriminatory pricing are the existing big players — namely telecom companies, who would like to continue to be gatekeepers to the net and profit by doing so, and some internet apps that would like to ensure that competition from new startup technologies is blocked.

A few companies would like to control consumer choice. Consumers will either have to pay additional, separate charges for each type of service, or will only be able to access certain content at significantly lower speeds.

The report has several passages that betray the regulator’s disregard for objectivity. For instance, there is a section that provides a detailed tabulation of the “adverse impacts” of the proliferation of OTTs such as Skype on telecom operator revenues.

This is notwithstanding much data readily available in the public domain confirming that telecom operators continue to earn healthy profits; besides, there is an alternative argument that telecom operators actually benefit from the growth of OTTs. No regulator has the right to prevent consumers from accessing innovation and choice because of “adverse impacts” of this disruptive technology on an existing set of companies.

Choice matters

Trai, therefore, seems to be completely oblivious to the adverse impact of that regulating OTTs will have on consumers, or on internet-based startups. Worryingly, Trai defines the major challenge by blatantly stating, “In a non-level playing field, how can such OTT app providers be brought within the ambit of the prevailing regulatory regime of the country to ensure public safety and security of users?” An undiscerning reader would be near convinced that telecom operators are victim to OTT malpractice.

The growth of OTT services is simply a manifestation of the tremendous opportunity for innovation provided by the internet. Businesses such as Flipkart, Alibaba and Snapdeal are all successes supported by a neutral internet.

These services have widened consumer choice. Disruptive technologies are a norm in the telecommunications sector — this should not be the reason to deny consumers of choice. Our digital policy ecosystem must encourage telecom operators, among others, to innovate.

Bandwidth and speed are the only means by which TSPs should be allowed to create new pricing models. Content should not fall under their purview.

I have urged consumers to speak out and defend their rights. I will also raise this issue in the upcoming session of Parliament — for a free, open and accessible internet is crucial to innovation, connectivity and economic growth.

Net neutrality lies at the core of how consumers are able to access the internet — and is therefore crucial to the success of Digital India. There should be no conditions placed on consumers for using OTT services, and absolutely no restrictions on the internet. The internet is too important to let a few private telecom players decide what the rules will be for consumers!

The writer is an MP and technology entrepreneur

Also read: BL Debate on Net Neutrality: Storm in a teacup

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Published on April 14, 2015
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