The US telecom regulator, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), moving to repeal Obama-era net neutrality regulations should knock some wind out of the sails of a sustained campaign in India for similar expansive control of the internet, treating it as a public utility. While the FCC, under chairman Ajit Pai said “the FCC will no longer be in the business of micromanaging business models and preemptively prohibiting services and applications and products that could be pro-competitive”, there is even more reason for countries like India to not even consider US-like net neutrality.
While the US was focusing on curbing the powers of ISPs under president Obama, the internet in that country is mostly built out—and even then the big telcos said they would stop investing if their powers were curbed. In India, by contrast, the internet is mostly provided on cellular networks and internet penetration remains woefully small with less than a third of the population covered; that with high-speed broadband speeds is still smaller. In such a situation, telcos need to be encouraged to grow instead of curbs being put on their operations—it doesn’t help that, thanks to ill-conceived government policies, most telcos are anyway bleeding and closing down. Indian telcos had a point when they argued for regulations on players like WhatsApp who were riding on their networks for free and forcing them to invest more for returns that were diminishing—none of the net neutrality activists in India who protested against this have an answer for who will pay for rolling out the internet for the rest of India if telco profits are sacrificed. Oddly, when telcos are providing subsidised handsets that are locked to their networks—vital to increased internet access on VoLTE networks—no activists are protesting though, in some sense, these do look like the “walled gardens” they were protesting earlier.