Given the contributions of both sides—telcos have built expensive data networks while OTT players are driving a lot more data to their websites—it is not surprising the debate on net neutrality has been so acrimonious. Telcos are seeing their businesses being eaten away—Trai’s consultation paper says telcos earn 40 paise from a 1-minute call versus 4 paise from a 1-minute VoIP call—and don’t want to build new networks under the circumstances. OTT players, on the other hand, are convinced they drive traffic, so telcos profit from them being around. The reality is that absolutism—or the purest form of net neutrality the Twitterati is espousing—just isn’t practical, and will render useless the ability of new technologies (3G/4G) to deliver services in the internet space.
A good example is 2G voice traffic versus that on 3G or 4G networks where the bulk of data traffic will move in future. If you make a voice call on a 2G network, since there is a separate pipe through which the traffic flows, voice transmission is instantaneous with no loss in fidelity. In the case of 3/4G networks, since there is just one pipe through which data travels, the network needs to tell the pipe how to prioritise the data. If a voice call on a 3/4G network, or IPTV for instance, is not prioritised—and that is what the pure net neutrality group is asking for—the call will be patchy. The only way to let voice calls work on such networks—the same applies to WhatsApp voice calls which the net neutrality camp swears by—is to relax the definition a bit, to allow telcos to prioritise the data. That is, allow ‘fast lanes’ for voice, instead of just letting the traffic voice packets move on what is called a ‘best efforts’ basis, to use net neutrality jargon. All 3G and 4G conventional voice packets are currently prioritised even today. As Trai points out, in the UK, such preferential treatment is allowed for ISPs in the form of ‘tiered services’ or ‘toll-boothing’. This is what Bharti Airtel was trying to offer some months ago—a higher-cost data plan that allowed voice-quality VoIP services—but had to withdraw in the face of severe opposition. According to this model of relaxed net neutrality, you will have differently-priced data packs, cheaper ones for those who want plain vanilla surfing and more expensive ones for those who want videos and other such services.
But what if this results in ‘throttling’, or speeds on the rest of the internet coming down considerably? What Trai suggests is to have minimum quality standards for various packages. This will require operators to increase their data network capacity, by deploying more 3G/4G networks (spectrum is a big constraint since more than half of it is unsuitable for 3/4G). This still leaves various others issues like whether interception of calls—this is requirement by law in India—is to be done by OTT players or the telcos and whether OTTs should be licensed; Skype has been asked to register as a telco in France. While the debate on this will continue to remain heated, unless some middle ground is found, telcos are not going to be in a position to fund further rollout of networks—though the amounts being spent by it are very small in comparison to the telcos, the raison d’etre of Facebook’s internet.org is to build stripped-down sites which lower the demand for broadband capacity. The net neutrality debate will continuously evolve, but one thing is for sure, and that is that absolutism isn’t going to work.