Two years after Trai set the cat among the pigeons by talking about the need for ‘net neutrality’, it is still not clear what Trai was trying to fix. Issues of internet service providers ‘choking’ off certain kind of internet traffic or giving better access to another type are talked of in mature markets like the US but even there, as the FCC chair said while rolling back Obama-era net neutrality rules, there was no such market failure. India has had no major complaints either, and with three fourths of Indians without internet facilities, building that out is a bigger priority than whether Netflix rolls out faster on a telco’s network than, say, ErosNow—in the US, FCC’s chair said broadband network investment fell 5% after the Obama rules as firms found them onerous. And, at the time Trai was worrying about net neutrality, debt-strapped telcos were worried about how over-the-top (OTT) players like WhatsApp were offering services that ate into their revenues but were not paying either a license fee or buying expensive spectrum as they were. Tuesday’s net neutrality recommendations, however, have left this to be dealt with separately. What is then left are recommendations that deal with ‘throttling’ and ‘choking’ and rules on what kind of commercial arrangements are possible.
If a telco had, say 300 million subscribers, you’d think it would be able to negotiate with a NetFlix and get a hefty discount for its subscribers. Though that is a legitimate commercial deal, Trai says this violates net neutrality and NetFlix has to make this offer to every telco’s subscribers. As long as the telco offers a basic quality of service— that is, it is not ‘throttling’ anyone—you’d think it would be allowed to offer lower data rates to watch NetFlix if this drove up volumes or made business sense. No, that too violates net neutrality, says Trai. If, however, a telco buys the movies off NetFlix/Eros and hosts them on its server—an intranet, in jargon—Trai says it is free to offer them at whatever subscription or data rates! Nor has Trai justified its opposition to Facebook’s Free Basics—free access to a stripped-down version of various sites for people who don’t have internet access.
Net neutrality activists and some politicians argue India was for the ‘full internet’ and did not want ‘walled gardens’, that only a few firms would be able to meet Facebook’s specifications and so they alone would benefit as people accessed their websites— it didn’t seem to matter than at least people were getting some version of the internet or that they could graduate to the ‘full internet’ when they had the money. When one telco offered a plan that gave free access to some websites, this was said to be anti-net-neutrality as only a handful of firms can afford to subsidise users on their sites—since a Flipkart, say, can afford to give free data to users to access its site while a Gokart can’t, this was said to be against the principle of a level playing field. That everyone doesn’t have the same access to capital or talent or raw materials in any part of the world was something that neither Trai nor activists/politicians even considered. At the end of the long—and not yet complete—exercise, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Trai has offered a solution looking for a problem.