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TRAI’s verdict on Net Neutrality: A move every Indian must welcome

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Net Neutrality is extremely important for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who can simply launch their businesses online, advertise the products and sell them openly, without any discrimination.

By Vinit Goenka

Net neutrality may not sound like a familiar term to many and you may also wonder what is wrong if someone wants to offer a service for free, but even if you are not an always-on-the-internet person, it is important for you. By definition, Net neutrality means that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites.

So, TRAI’s ruling on differential data pricing and the effective ban on Facebook’s Free Basics app has seen a flurry of reaction in India and abroad. TRAI’s order is one of the strongest positions the regulator has taken in favour of keeping internet neutral. So it’s probably best to get familiar with ‘net neutrality’ as we, in India, could be hearing more on it in the future.

Firstly, we need to understand what exactly net neutrality is. It means Internet that allows everyone to communicate freely; a service provider should allow access to all content and applications regardless of the source and no websites or pages should be blocked, as long as they aren’t illegal. It’s like a fixed-telephone line, which is equal to all, and no one gets to decide who you call or what you speak. Another aspect of net neutrality is level playing field on the internet. This means, all websites can co-exist without hampering others. They are accessible at the same speed and no particular website or application is favoured. For instance – like electricity is common for all. Net neutrality also means all web sites and content creators are treated equal, and you don’t have to pay extra for faster Internet speed to a particular site/service. And TRAI’s verdict has gone an extra mile in providing a level playing field to everybody.  Now that the dust is slowly settling after the newly released regulations on net neutrality, and telecom operators and the Indian technology industry comes to terms with, they must operate if they wish to avoid penalties.

The biggest impact that most people will notice immediately is that any sort of service-specific data pack offered by any telecom operator will become unavailable. All those ‘WhatsApp-only or Twitter-only data vouchers’ that give you free 250 MB of WhatsApp or Twitter data in exchange for paying Rs. 30 a month, after which you are charged the normal rate, are no longer allowed by TRAI’s new regulations.

There is at least one research paper that shows that these free Wikipedia/WhatsApp data vouchers are primarily used by the lower-middle class or people who already have access to the Internet either at home or school/office. These packages are not used by the poorest of the poor, which strengthens the argument by net neutrality activists that zero-rating does not help the non-connected come online. However, what it does mean that TRAI’s new regulations will adversely affect a vast swathe of the aspirational, lower-income earning section of the population.
In the long-term, however, this decision should help stop the “cable-isation of the Internet”. What was a decent possibility, if zero-rating was allowed, was that telecom operators would slice up Internet access and have you pay separately for each website.

Theoretically, the ban on differential pricing of data on the basis of content should ensure a competitive environment for India’s start-up ecosystem. This means that Indian apps will be able to compete fairly (with regard to data pricing and Internet access) with U.S and European technology companies and large Indian companies such as Flipkart won’t be able to muscle out smaller competitors with the help of programmes such as Airtel Zero.

The telecom industry and telecom operators have naturally been hit the hardest on two counts: One, TRAI’s ruling makes sure that telecom operators will unable to differentially price various services in order to make an extra buck. Two, telecom operators such as Airtel will not be able to use their services to favour their home-grown applications such as Wynk (a music-streaming app).

Net Neutrality is extremely important for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who can simply launch their businesses online, advertise the products and sell them openly, without any discrimination. It is essential for innovation and creating job opportunities. Big companies like Google, Twitter and several others are born out of net neutrality. With increasing Internet penetration in India and given that we are becoming a breeding ground for startups and entrepreneurs, the lack of net neutrality should worry us greatly. Besides, it is very important for freedom of speech, so that one can voice their opinion without the fear of being blocked or banned.

However there are few problems with the TRAI’s ruling as well as it does not differentiate with various zero-rating attempts, apart from making an exemption for emergency services, and adds very little to the debate on how best we should service India’s unconnected.

One can’t clearly blame TRAI for not caring about India’s rural population and yet on the other hand it doesn’t offer a lighted path for the way forward. TRAI’s Chairman R.S Sharma however has pointed out that open-source options of providing connectivity will be easily approved by the Government.

While there are a number of Internet connectivity projects on the cards by Silicon Valley-based companies — Google’s Project Loon, Microsoft’s white space project, Facebook and SpaceX’s drones — none of these have hit the ground yet or appear to have the surprising reach of Free Basics (even if the efficacy of Free Basics in converting non- Internet users to paying Internet users is in doubt).

Over the last ten years, however, the dream of getting high-speed broadband to India’s villages has remained very much a pipe dream. The National Optic Fibre Network plan, which has been continued and rebranded as BharatNet by the current BJP-led government,  was launched in 2011 with the aim of covering 2,50,00 villages in three years. By January, 2015, a few pilot projects had started. In fact, our government need to work harder on the indigenous project to connect the poorest of poor residing in hinterlands with the Internet.

– The author is Member, IT Task force, Ministries of Shipping, Road Transport & Highways

If you have an interesting article / experience / case study to share, please get in touch with us at [email protected]


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