Two years after Trai first set the cat among the pigeons by talking about the need for ‘net neutrality’, it is still not clear what exactly Trai was trying to fix.
Two years after Trai first set the cat among the pigeons by talking about the need for ‘net neutrality’, it is still not clear what exactly 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 there has been no such complaint in India so far – indeed, with three fourths of Indians without access to the internet, building that out is a bigger priority than whether NetFlix rolls out faster on a telco’s network than, say, ErosNow. Indeed, 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 even buying the expensive spectrum they were. While that was an issue the net neutrality recommendations – out on Tuesday – was to address, Trai has said this will be dealt with separately as this was not a core net neutrality issue.
What’s then left with the issue of OTT unaddressed is a set of recommendations that deal with throttling and choking and, through a set of recommendations made last year, 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. While that sounds a perfectly legitimate commercial deal, Trai says this violates net neutrality. As long as the telco was offering a certain basic quality of service – that is, not “throttling” anyone – you’d think it would be allowed to offer discounts on data used to watch NetFlix if it felt this would drive volumes. No, that too violates net neutrality according to Trai. Amazingly, if this is done using another route, Trai has no problem. If the telco buys the movies off NetFlix or an Eros and hosts them on its server – an intranet, in jargon – it is free to offer these movies at whatever subscription and at whatever data rates, and no, this offer does not have to be made to the subscribers of other telcos.
Nor has Trai been able to justify its opposition to Facebook’s Free Basics – free access to a stripped-down version of various sites for people that did not have internet access. Net neutrality activists and some politicians argued India was for the “full internet” and did not want “walled gardens”. It was argued that only a few companies would be able to meet Facebook’s specifications and so they would benefit unduly – it didn’t seem to matter than at least people were getting some version of the internet and that they could graduate to the “full internet” when they had the money. When a telco offered a plan that gave free access to the website of a particular company, this was said to be anti-net-neutrality since only a handful of firms could afford to subsidize 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 nowhere in the world do all companies have the same access to capital or talent or raw materials was something that neither Trai nor the activists/politicians even considered. At the end of the long – and not yet complete – exercise, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that what Trai has offered is a solution looking for a problem.