It would be retrograde for India’s economic development if a westernised version of net neutrality is imposed
Today there is much excitement and expectation about the advent of Digital India—a major initiative of the government to transform the country into a digitally empowered society—which is centred on three key areas of digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen, governance and services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens. This initiative, which is slated for completion by 2019, aims at connecting the unconnected with high-speed internet. The entire project rests on nine pillars, the foremost of which are broadband highways, universal access to mobile connectivity, public internet access, and electronic delivery of services. It, therefore, follows that mobile internet access and usage are going to be paramount factors for the success of the Digital India initiative.
However, where are we today? Voice connectivity is only about 60% and data penetration far lower at about 20%. India ranks as low as 129 out of 166 countries on ICT development index and has the dubious distinction of being placed in the least connected countries group in the world. There are formidable challenges for making progress towards Digital India. Such a situation must make us pause and look for specific solutions.
Net neutrality—closely connected to Digital India—is another area of excitement and debate. We need to understand that there are multiple definitions and versions of net neutrality across the globe from the US to Europe to the Asia Pacific. In fact, even within Europe, different countries have different views on net neutrality. This is probably rightly so since each country has to devise its own customised version for the maximum welfare of its citizens, keeping in mind its own constraints and state of digital development. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that would work in this regard. With India’s extremely low level of digital connectivity, especially outside urban areas, and also keeping in mind the low purchasing power of our citizens and extreme price sensitivity of the market, we need to urgently have an India-specific net neutrality that addresses this effectively. We cannot adopt an alien version ignoring our unique socio-demographics.
First, any product or concept that aids our low-end users or the unconnected through easiest entry and take-up of data services should be permitted and encouraged. Second, it should stimulate innovation and assist the new entrepreneurs with competing products.
For example, most of us are familiar with the established product Dropbox for storing files. If a new entrepreneur were to come up with an excellent competing product—let’s call it NewCo—it might be greatly limited in a price-sensitive market such as ours for getting a fair share of the market. This is because if I am a low-end connected user with the affordability of just a 6 GB pack a month, even though I wish to switch from Dropbox to NewCo, I would not be able to do so because the steps for downloading all my files from Dropbox and uploading to NewCo would breach my entitlement of 6 GB. However, if NewCo were to be on a “zero platform”, then I would incur no data consumption for uploading my files to NewCo and I would easily switch from Dropbox to NewCo. Innumerable examples like this could be given to show how a “zero platform” clearly benefits the low-end Indian consumer to use more data and the deserving innovative entrepreneur to establish himself in the market.
Even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) noted in its March 2015 rules that such “sponsored data plans (sometimes called zero-rating)” could “provide benefits to consumers” and that such “new service offerings, depending on how they are structured, could benefit consumers and competition.”
The third crucial element of net neutrality for Digital India is an open internet with no blocking and no throttling. Only sites having national security implications or impacting social norms/values like child pornography should be allowed to be blocked and that too only by government orders. Fourth, while there should be no throttling or blocking of competitive services, appropriate speeds would be permissible for different services, say, email or browsing versus YouTube. In India, not all users want all services, and providing equal access to all simply means that everyone subsidises the heaviest user. This would be bizarre and retrograde; something like a rural or jhuggi dweller subsidising the Lutyens’ Delhi resident! Hence, Indian net neutrality should permit reasonable traffic management such that all users have a reasonable internet experience. And transparency being a primary weapon in safeguarding the open internet, all users and the regulator should be disclosed the information.
Lastly, there shouldn’t be discriminatory practices of telecom service providers towards OTT players nor should there be any discriminatory treatment between telcos and OTT players.
It would be retrograde for India’s economic development and harmful for our citizens’ welfare if a westernised version of net neutrality is imposed on this country. The need of the hour is an Indian net neutrality.
The author is an honorary fellow of The Institute of Engineering & Technology, London