The advent of the internet, coupled with free, equal and unfettered access, has revolutionised innovation, communication, education and awareness, has mobilised people and economies, and has facilitated growth like never before. As people experienced the power of the internet, the concept of ‘network’ neutrality gained momentum. ‘Net neutrality’ is widely understood to mean a network design paradigm that facilitates impartial, unrestricted movement of data without regard to content, website, application, platform, kinds of devices that may be attached, designation or source. Equal access to the internet is the fundamental principle of ‘net neutrality’ and anything perceived to remotely threaten this is bound to result in a public outcry.
It’s no surprise that the Trai consultation paper on ‘Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services’ released in March this year has received an incredible response from all sectors. In fact, we truly appreciate Trai’s efforts to initiate this consultation paper.
There has been a meteoric rise of OTT services. These services, such as WhatsApp, ChatON and Skype, have fast replaced traditional time-division-multiplexing-based services such as SMS, MMS and voice calls. The demographic reach of OTT services is, however, limited to select subscriber groups, primarily in urban areas. A global comparison shows that internet penetration in the US stands at 87%, China at 46% and Vietnam at 43%, versus a mere 18% in India. Even within the territorial boundaries of India, the ‘digital divide’ or the access to internet between the haves and the have nots in urban and rural India paints a very dismal picture. OTTs are not regulated anywhere in the world. It is, therefore, surprising that, in India, where the internet is still at a nascent stage, the topic of regulating OTTs has gained so much importance.
In the larger scheme of things, are we losing sight of the critical concerns that engulf the internet industry? There are issues that need to be addressed such as bridging the ‘digital divide’, strengthening network security, providing congestion-free networks, affordability to the consumer, scarcity of spectrum, high cost of spectrum, network security, etc.
An exponential rise in the internet and data usage is expected in the near future. With the advent of the Internet of Things and M2M technology, the inevitable issue of ‘Data Security’ takes centre-stage. Given the future of technology, is India equipped to handle national and consumer security? Or ensure privacy of customer data? Unfortunately, the answer is negative. India is still striving to implement its Privacy Bill. Our existing regulations on data security, cyber crimes, hacking of data, cloud security, storing, monitoring, analysis and processing of data located in remote servers, etc, are inadequate. Should we not channelise our actions towards addressing these rather than on regulating OTTs and risking the growth of data and internet penetration in an uncertain, evolving and nascent market?
Historically, market forces have determined the entry and exit of new players, ensuring competitive prices and services, customer choices and healthy competition. Across the globe, content providers and ISPs have had arrangements that best suited their subscribers and business interests. Any regulation on the issue of net neutrality may have an unintended impact on the millions of users in India who dream to be a part of the ‘connected world’. India’s issues on the internet are unique and we must evolve unique solutions. Our expectations and aspirations of the internet cannot be the same as that of any other country. What India needs today is a neutral ground where ISPs, TSPs and content providers can coexist.
Globally, it is not uncommon for industries to adapt to a pricing policy that is most efficient to them and their customers. One wonders why pricing is so controversial and frowned upon when it comes to internet industry? We should ensure that the overarching principles of equal access within the same bandwidth, basic minimum quality of service and speed (irrespective of the service availed), transparent and ethical practices, and affordable costs for the end-consumers are maintained while deciding pricing norms and policies.
We cannot underestimate the importance of potential security concerns that could arise with the growth of the internet. It is heartening to know that the Department of Telecommunications has formed an independent panel on net neutrality and we hope that they address the concerns raised above while ensuring a beneficial coexistence for all internet players.
The author is partner, Economic Laws Practice