The Internet has become part and parcel of our lives that we can’t live a day without it, be it regular surfing, facebooking or whatsapping. It is built around the principle of open dissemination of information and ideas that can be shared and exchanged between you and me for free, and that no one dictates what is accessible or what should be accessed (unless the website is illegal). Being a self confessed news junkie and being a journalist myself I live, eat and breathe news. So for me and in-numerous others like me net neutrality is more important than anything else. The whole idea of net neutrality is to have a fair distribution of information in an unbiased manner ensuring that it is accessible to everyone in an equal manner.
Net neutrality has been a subject of debate across the world and the general consensus is that Internet should remain neutral. In the US earlier this year the Federal Communications Commission or FCC voted for a neutral Internet by 3-2 brining cheers to millions of net neutrality supporters. The regulation was a victory for the advocates of net neutrality as it ensures that broadband providers cannot block or speed up connections for a fee. It also prohibits Internet providers from striking deals with content firms for smoother and speedier delivery of traffic to consumers. In India the debate was sparked by telecom company Airtel when it announced the launch of ‘Airtel Zero’ – an open marketing platform that will allow customers to access mobile applications at zero data charges, similar to the established concept of toll-free voice calling. According the the company this plan is a win-win situation for customers and marketers. It will allow everyone from big marketers to small-time application developers to make parts or their entire mobile app free for customers – thus reviving interest of dormant customers, attracting new potential users and increasing retention. As far as customers are concerned as it will allow them to access their favourite mobile applications at no data charges, and also encourage them to try out new applications. Sounds quite interesting and promising too.
But the question is what happens if a company doesn’t want to join? So will service providers discriminate that particular company? The fear at the moment is that they can deliberately reduce the speed of those applications or websites that don’t pay. The natural progression is over a period of time customers will move on to an application that is faster to load and is easier to access.
The other concern is how much will be the charge? For example if it is being charged per person and if providers charge an exorbitant rate what will happen? Big companies and corporates will be able to pay as they possess the affordability of scale. But what happens to small businesses and startups? How will they pay? Even if they pay up, will that model sustain if they don’t get enough traffic as expected and keep on making losses? Naturally the companies will try to pass it on to customers, which boils down to the question will it be free for consumers?
Telcos argue that they have a fair and genuine reason for such moves. They have paid billions to acquire spectrum, be it 2G, 3G and broad band. They have also spent huge amount in setting up world class infrastructure. And now VoIP providers like Skype, Viber and recently WhatsApp (through its calling service) come and give free international calls and video chatting services. And the irony is that these VoIP providers use the existing infrastructure and services of these telcos, which in turn has been eating into the international voice call revenues of the telecom companies.
But on the flip-side didn’t these telcos make money when the sun was shining bright for almost two decades. The fee for spectrum was also minimal as it was first come first serve basis and there was no competitive bidding. Till the early 2000s voice call and SMS rates were high, and even charges were applicable on incoming calls. So there isn’t much to complain about as telecom is a technology business and technology is evolving all the time. These companies should just adopt the change and be more innovative rather than cry over spilled milk.
Telcos’ role is to provide service and it is better served if they stick to it. It is not their right to decide on what content or application should be accessed. That right solely and solely rests on the consumer. Data and content are two different things and cannot be controlled by the same entity. Telcos claim to control the content is is like a company that makes the pipeline for gas making claims to decide the quantity and quality of gas that will be supplied.
This doesn’t mean that the telecom companies should incur losses and suffer, but the idea of making net neutrality a thing of the past is not the solution. One solution is that for non payers these providers can continue giving access in the existing band width and speed. For companies who are willing to pay the speed can be doubled or tripled, making it a premium service which they can opt for or upgrade to. This means that most of the apps will be free for the consumers and hence will be openly accessible which in-turn will increase the traffic significantly. And as far as VoIP providers like Skype, Viber others are concerned they have to pay a premium or fee if they want to use the data through which consumers make calls.