While the department of telecommunications (DoT) committee’s recommendations on the net neutrality issue are not yet in the public domain, there have been plentiful media reports (strategic leaks?) which indicate the broad contours of the recommendations. There appears to be significant dismay and disappointment in the ranks of the telcos and their associates. According to them, the recommendations, although a step forward in a way, are heavily biased in favour of the other camp and are unduly harsh and unfair to the telcos.
It is clear from the media reports that the committee has made a very strong pitch for adopting the core principles of net neutrality (NN). This is fine and generally welcomed by all stakeholders although there are some differences in the various interpretationa of NN. DoT is believed to be considering the imposition of suitable fines or penalties for violations of NN. Such punitive measures should be resorted to only after there is clarity and a uniformly-agreed interpretation of NN adopted.
The committee has also come down heavily against any prioritisation of content delivery and has recommended that collaborations between telcos and content-providers that enable gate-keeping should actively be discouraged. This appears rather impractical and definitely harmful to consumers’ interests. Is it correct to recommend that a mission critical service like disaster management or remote medical monitoring suffer the same priority and speed/quality as, say, e-mail or browsing? As long as the latter services get their appropriate speeds for good user experience, what is the harm in a prioritisation for more critical or demanding services? What applies to mission critical services is equally applicable to delay-sensitive video services like video-conferencing or YouTube. As long as the prioritisation does not result in throttling or degrading the experience of other users, it appears illogical to impose the draconian decree of no prioritisation for any service. This is bound to harm users’ overall internet experience with a general reduction in speed and unnecessarily raise cost for all.
It is also quite disappointing to understand from the media reports that the committee has outlawed initiatives like internet.org. At a time when one of the country’s highest priorities is Digital India and increased adoption of the internet for the nation’s economic progress, this is quite retrograde. It is well known that internet use in India is lower than in South America, Ghana, Senegal or Indonesia. Our great BRIC rivals—Brazil, Russia and China—average more than three times the internet adoption rate of India! Under these circumstances, it is elementary that increasing the internet access or adoption rate is our over-arching policy requirement. If this possible, by providing free access to at least some parts of the internet to the have-not or unconnected through initiatives like internet.org, then a ban of these is harmful for the common man. It is akin to the quote incorrectly attributed to Marie Antoinette of France, that if the starving do not have bread, “Let them eat cake”. Rather than rejecting internet.org type initiatives, it would be more beneficial to prescribe regulator oversight for such proposals and examine closely for anti-competitive action. This extremely important. India, with only about 50% unique subscribers, will certainly have the mobile as the first screen for those waiting to be connected to the internet. Any initiative that facilitates adoption of, at least, a part of the internet, should be welcomed and supported rather than condemned and banned.
Notwithstanding the above, it is however heartening that the committee seems to have heard the earnest plea of the operators for “same service, same rule” equitable approach. This is to be appreciated, albeit the recommendation, per se, addresses the requirement only partially. This is because, recognising the heavy regulatory arbitrage enjoyed by over-the-top (OTT) voice communication services, the committee has recommended that domestic call communication services by telecom operators as well as by OTT communication services should be given the same regulatory treatment. Sadly, however, they appear to have stopped short of meting out full justice. They have, in a populist approach, exempted both international voice calling as well as all OTT messaging, from any regulatory control. This is a slightly bizarre position since OTT messaging, which have none of the regulatory burdens, levies or obligations of the telcos, have, through arbitrage, almost completely decimated the messaging business of the telcos. Thus, while the committee must be commended for recognising the regulatory arbitrage, they were needed to go further to remedy the situation since, in this respect, we are talking of huge losses to the exchequer also.
The telcos have stringent security and privacy obligations imposed on them which the OTT players do not have to worry about. This is not only anomalous but possibly hazardous for law and order and national security. The media reports do not indicate whether the committee has addressed this all-important aspect.
All in all, going by media reports, the DoT recommendations on NN, while surely being a step in the right direction, are too harsh on the telcos and do not go far enough to address the basic problems of non-level-playing field, security and privacy, adequately. Nevertheless, while the operators are disappointed, net neutrality advocates would exult over the recommendations and probably hail it like Shylock did in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, “A Daniel come to judgement!”
The author is honorary fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, London, and is a telecom consultant. Views are personal