Net Neutrality – The Big Debate

With the TRAI’s decision on net neutrality recently, let’s take a look at Net Neutrality debate that whistled two years back. Before getting into the news, let’s understand what is net neutrality?

It is a principle, which says that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally and there should be no discrimination by Telecommunication companies/Internet Service Providers. The service providers should not differentiate this service with different forms and categories of traffic on the internet.

How can it be categorized?

  • All the data on the internet flows in the form of bits of zeroes and ones.
  • The components of net neutrality say that all these bits of traffic are equal, so internet service providers should not differentiate these bits of data based on their content; usage, the users, or based on the website.
  • Which means there should not be any discrimination from the service providers by differentiating one set of data or one set of bits and pieces from the other.

This explains the entire concept of net  neutrality.

What does net neutrality stands for?

The system of net neutrality is in place since the beginning of the internet and is followed in time and different parts of the world. It stands for:

  • Equal accessible to all sites
  • Same data cost to access a site(there should be no price differential )
  • No zero rating

What is Zero-rating?

zero rate Zero-rating (also called toll-free data or sponsored data) is the practice of mobile network operators (MNO), mobile virtual network operators (MVNO), and Internet Service Providers (ISP) not to charge end customers for data used by specific applications or internet services through their network, in limited or metered data plans. Ex: Some service providers build bulk websites, bulk content and application allow users to access for free of cost but when the other service provider charges to get access to the same data then it is obvious that users will opt the service that is available for free of cost. And, this affects the other service provider and disturbs the founding principle of net neutrality which says every traffic on a website should be treated equally and should be given a level-playing field and one should not be discriminated at the cost of the others.

What if Telecommunication companies/internet service providers have the control?

internet service providers There have already been a few violations of net neutrality principles by some Indian service providers. This is what will happen when service providers have the control:

  1. they (internet service providers) can control what a user can and cannot access (ex: a user can access only those particular websites that a service provider allows to)
  2. how fast can a user access a website (upload/download time)
  3. payment to access the website and its content or service i.e., that all sites must be equally accessible (ex: For a similar service the payment may differ from one website to the other which means it is within the power of the service providers that they can treat differently the same service for different website which makes one website more advantageous over the other and thus the net neutrality concept is violated.)

These conditions by the service providers will lead to dilution in net neutrality, which is nothing but violating the net neutrality principle.

Why and how did the issue on Net Neutrality start?

Even before the debate on net neutrality gathered the public attention, there has already been a few violation of net neutrality principles by some Indian service providers. It (started in the year 2014 when Airtel announced to charge its subscribers who use over-the-top (OTT) like Skype, Wiber, Whatsapp’s and etc., that lead to a rage and ultimately Airtel has to budge and the plan was put on hold. This is when TRAI released a formal consultation paper on “Regulatory Framework for Over-the-Top (OTT) services in March 2015 asking for public opinions on net neutrality.

Why was net neutrality in the news again?

This time, it all started with the internet.org or Free Basics. internet.org or Free Basics internet.org-free basics internet.org launched on August 20, 2013 by Mark Zuckerberg founder of Facebook is a collection of various websites that are made freely available only to the users and subscribers of the Reliance customers in India and they will be not charged extra for any data usage and it violates the principle of net neutrality and this is how it happens. Suppose if internet.org, which was later changed to Free Basics give free access to web applications for only to subscribers of Reliance then the competitors who charge a certain amount to access same web applications will be at loss as they will be losing many subscribers and their business will come down, as obviously people will choose the service that is available for free. However, there was not much furor on the internet.org as FB founder said this will improve internet access for people around the world and also added that “connectivity is a human right’. The actual rage started when Airtel started Airtel Zero – in this plan certain websites and applications  will be made available for free which is against net neutrality.

Check the below YouTube video to know in detail about the Airtel-Zero Plan and the expected questions that may appear in UPSC civil services exam.

Back to TRAIS’s 20 questions to the public in a recent consultation paper, which can be summarized  in one line as “Should the internet be touched or is it perfect the way it is?” Apparently there was the argument on this which was in favor and against net neutrality which is discussed below.

What Internet service providers argue?

  • Telecom companies/internet service providers say that they pay millions of dollars to the government to get the spectrum license.
  • They pay a certain amount to the government as subscription charge for the spectrum allocations as well.
  • Invest billions of dollars to dollars to build the infrastructure for the network and salary for their employees, come up advertisement to create the vast network called the internet that allows us to access the internet many websites
  • But, the over-the-top services companies like Skype, Viber, WhatsApp use their network for their services and generate more revenue and there are such thousands of apps that ride on such service providers network for free which the service providers cannot bear.
  • These OTT services using the internet service providers(ISP) network directly compete with the voice and message services of the ISP for which the OTTs don’t pay anything to the ISP.

This is one of the major reason which ISP complain about. **This is why we(the users) pay extra to use data.

Importance of Net Neutrality

If net neutrality was not there, the telecom companies/ISP would act as a gate-keeper and can take some crucial decisions in choosing which OTT services can pass their gate (use their network), blocking some apps, ensuring the competitors app run slow and their partnered OTTs apps run fast. This could put the whole net neutrality concept in danger and create more dilemma in the country. Let’s take a look at the statistics of the telecom/internet users and non-users in the country A study shows that:

  • 40% of the population in the country doesn’t have access to voice connection
  • Only 12% of the population is using the data connection/internet

statistics of internet or data users and non users To make “Digital India”, this 4 %(with no voice connection) and the remaining 88%(with no internet connection) should be brought on the board and this requires to create a vast infrastructure and of course a huge bulk investment. For this investment, the private telecom companies and ISPs should participate as the government has liberalized them and foreign direct investments (FDI) is flowing in. But, the private peers argue that they are losing from investing on this infrastructure and moreover, the OTTs using their network are generating vast revenue and do not take part in investing in such infrastructures. With this argument going on, a research was made by one of the organizations (EY- Ernst & Young) on how much investment may require building such infrastructure that will bring all the people on the digital platform. This study revealed that it requires 2.5 lakh crores to connect the people in India through voice and internet, thus making Digital India. Since the government wants the private peers to take up this project but the private peers argue that already they are giving 5% of their generated revenue in producing rural broadband. But, the ISPs say their service is used by the OTT services who generate enough revenue from this and do not contribute much to the ISPs, which makes the telecom companies/internet service providers to contribute less(5%) to the rural broadband service. With this, another question arises!

Does other sectors in India has net neutrality?

So, let’s take a look at other sectors in the country. For an example, the road infrastructure: Here, at some particular tolls, commuters pay toll tax and this is because the infrastructure is built through the private peers investment. Does this means net neutrality exists here? The answer would be no. Electrical Sector: Here a consumer who uses less than 300 units of electricity will pay the low tariff and different tariffs on the usage of units of electricity and this shows there is no net neutrality. Similarly, in the airline sector, the price of the tickets varies based on which category does a passenger choose (economy class, business class, premium economy and etc) again in this sector there is no neutrality. Now this puts in a dilemma that when there is no neutrality in any other sectors across the globe or in India why the internet is singled out in this. Let’s take the Global opinion regarding the net neutrality:

  1. Chile: in 2014 it banned all the zero-rate schemes
  2. While Barack Obama in the US supporting net neutrality asked the Federal Communication Commission to make strong rules that will ensure the following concepts:
    • No blocking
    • No throttling (equally treated)
    • No Paid prioritization (zero-rate schemes

With the in-depth look at this net neutrality debate now let’s take a look at the TRAI’s decision on net neutrality which was ruled in favour of net neutrality  that was declared on 8th of February, 2016. TRAI’s Order in A Gist: TRAI - Net Neutrality

  • No blocking
  • Same speed for all
  • No zero rating
  • Free basics and AirtelZero effectively banned.
  • An ISP can introduce reduced tariff for accessing or providing
  • Emergency services.
  • Data packs that offer unlimited access to a certain type of app or service, like Whatsapp or Facebook, for a small fee, will become illegal.
  • The big telecom players like Airtel, Vodafone, which have often clubbed free content such as movies or music with their apps like Airtel Wynk or Vodafone Play will also be affected.
  • TRAI will impose a fine of Rs 50,000 per day the order is violated, which is subject to a maximum of Rs 50 lakh. (The issue of VoIP apps like WhatsApp or Skype and whether they could come under a licensing regime as telecoms have been demanding, remains unresolved.)

What Government can Do?

  • A part of spectrum auction proceeds can be used to provide free or low-cost internet services
  • Free internet services are rarely free. Telecos make use of user data at some point in time to generate revenue. Explicit norms on data privacy and use of customer data should be devised. User data (information pertaining to users) should be protected from misuse.

The Other Views

  • Applications like Free Basics would have helped develop an online market in India where internet penetration rate is only about 27%, one of the lowest in Asia.
  • It wouldn’t have been long before competitors entered the market for free and low-cost Internet service.

Now, do we have a law on net neutrality?

Technically, India still does not have a law that endorses Net Neutrality as a whole. Until the Parliament passes one, the latest order is the closest India has to a pro-Neutrality stand. Till a law is in place the debate rages on.   

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