Trai’s decision to ban all differential tariff appears to be an overreaction to basic service on zero-rating offered by Facebook and the aggressive campaign of its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Differential pricing for different levels of service is a well-accepted principle across all industries—energy, railways, airlines, buses, highways (toll), etc. The concept of differential pricing inherently recognises the economic principle of paying differently for different levels of service and experience. If this ban is applied to the airline industry, it will translate to abolition of business class and first class, while railways will end up with only one class, maybe the third class. The decision may come in the way of upgradation of internet for Quality Of Service (QoS) to real-time services.
Trai seems to have followed the US example, where the FCC, last February, passed by a voice vote (3-2) to put internet in the same regulatory regime as telephony. Historically, data services have been classified as information services and have not been regulated by the Telecommunication Act, 1996, passed by US Senate. Net neutrality has been a theoretical concept which has been debated in the US since 2003, in practice it only means equal access to all websites. However, it did not regulate the download speeds which varied according to the content and the requirement of maintaining QoS. In a reversal of past practice, the FCC decided that all lanes on the internet should have the same speed. The decision was influenced by the open support President Barack Obama gave to net neutrality. The telecom and cable operators have taken the FCC to federal courts and the case is yet to be decided. In case the US gets a Republican President next year, the FCC decision is likely to be reversed.
In sharp contrast, the European Commission (EC) has taken a more nuanced approach to net neutrality. EC recognised that certain specialised services, such as video-conferencing and telesurgery, require faster lanes to ensure QoS, while also recognising that congestion management is a real challenge on public internet. The EC allows operators to take steps to manage traffic on their networks to avoid congestion. This can be done only by classification and prioritisation of traffic.
Last year, DoT had appointed a committee to report on net neutrality, which also brought out the question of traffic management, i.e. treating real-time traffic (voice/video) differently than non-real-time data (text) traffic. The latency (delay) requirement of the former is stringent (less than one-tenth of a second), to meet QoS norms, whereas data traffic such as e-mail is non-real-time and is not delay-sensitive, thus it can be put on the slower lane. In the name of net neutrality and freedom of internet, we cannot have the same lane for a donkey cart and Mercedes-Benz on the information highway; they need separate lanes for smooth flow of traffic and for avoidance of congestion.
The internet is called the “best effort” service as it does not guarantee any QoS to any of its applications. The IETF has made a lot of effort over the last two decades to make the internet capable of carrying time-sensitive traffic. It released two important specifications—DiffServ and IntServ—in 1990s. DiffServ provides different lanes while IntServ reserves resources across the network to handle time-sensitive traffic. The latest one called Multiprotocol Label Switching is to provide QoS for multimedia communications. Internet version 4 has a byte called Type of Service (ToS), and the latest internet version 6 provides for flow-control, to provide application-level QoS. Implementing these protocols will require additional investment by ISPs as well as telecom operators. The argument that the highway should carry all types of traffic in the same lane without any discrimination is economically not tenable; even highways have different lanes, with different speed limits. The highway authority is economically justified in charging higher toll rates for faster lanes. The information highway is no different in concept.
Internet can be neutral only for similar type of traffic and similar websites. While all sites should be equally accessible, the download speeds of various content will have to be different based on traffic characteristics—be it time-sensitive or time-insensitive—for ensuring QoS. An example of the former is a film on a video websites run by a cable company, which should provide faster download speeds so that customer gets a QoS comparable to cable TV services.
Net neutrality should not come in the way of upgradation of internet to the next generation. It must provide separate lanes for time-sensitive traffic and non-time-sensitive. The former being delay-tolerant and the latter delay-intolerant. Many US cities are working on the next-generation internet and they should be incentivised. Internet should not be condemned to remain best effort for ever; it must be upgraded by QoS building blocks to guarantee QoS to multimedia traffic.
The author is former member, Trai and Telecom Commission