The esoteric concept of net neutrality has recently become a controversial topic, with various stakeholders strongly supporting or opposing the concept of net neutrality.
Some definitions of net neutrality attempt to define it as the requirement that an Internet Service Provider or telecom operator should not discriminate between the different types of traffic that it carries over its networks, and should treat all packets equally. Those knowledgeable about networks know that all data packets are not treated equally — they are routed differently; an SMS message and email are store and forward types of data, while VOIP and streaming video are real time. Data packs are routinely routed over various pathways and not necessarily the shortest route, leading to differences in time when these messages are delivered. Hence, the time is opportune to rise above the din and delve on a much larger issue.
The larger debate for India and other developing countries should not be about net neutrality but should focus on net opportunity.
While it is good to argue for equal treatment of all packets over the internet, there are merits for prioritisation so as to ensure optimal utilisation of scarce resources, including spectrum, to maximise benefits to subscribers.
The DTH service provider offers bouquets or bundles of services at different rates — one package for movie buffs, another package at a different rate for sports fans, a third package for news junkies, a fourth package for regional languages, etc. This business model permits greater choice and flexibility and pricing options for the consumer.
Thus, while ‘equal treatment’ may be important to ensure that new business grow and thrive and get equal opportunity, prioritisation is necessary to create the opportunity for many such new business and advances like telemedicine or M2M (driverless cars).The debate on Over the Top, OTT, services and net neutrality is too important to be drowned out by polarised shrill voices.
While developed countries such as US, EU and Japan are tending towards a common definition of net neutrality, even in their case, there is no unanimity or policy announcement on net neutrality just yet. In the US, the matter of net neutrality is not settled and appears to be moving to litigation and perhaps even a repeal or significant modification if Congress has its way. And in the EU, there is no single model which has been adopted. On the other hand, some countries have either prohibited OTT services or have insisted on regulatory compliance.
Thus, there is no single model or approach being adopted globally and there appears to be a wide spectrum of practises prevailing world over.
In developed countries where there is plenty of bandwidth (fibre and spectrum) and high broadband penetration, net neutrality may be an apt consideration. This is not the case in India where operators face several constraints such as scarce spectrum, with allocations being lowest globally; high degree of government regulations and regulatory fees; massive investments and high debt burden and low broadband penetration. The operators in India have to pay levies of up to about 30% of their gross revenues to government.
India being a predominantly wireless economy, last mile internet access and usage by customers is driven primarily by the mobile telephony service. Since the bandwidth of spectrum available for facilitating the services is much lower compared to other countries, traffic management by telcos may actually be a boon for the consumers, to provide the most desired and best quality of the services.
Thus the immediate priority in India, where 80% of the population has no data connectivity, is for rolling out broadband networks, rather than continue to debate on the concepts and issues of net neutrality which are only beginning to be defined globally. It is high time we prioritise between connectivity for all the villages of India as envisaged in the Digital India programme, rather than debate on issues concerning 20% of the population.
Given these realities prevailing in India, adoption of a balanced approach which encourages collaboration amongst OTT players and TSPs on one hand; and providing a boost to new technologies and services, like tele-medicine, M2M etc. on the other hand, is necessary.
Thus, for us to leverage the benefits of net opportunity, a balanced regulatory approach which keeps a holistic picture in mind and allows best use of scarce resources will be most suited for India.
While the debate on net neutrality continues in India, it remains to be seen whether the larger issues get highlighted which enable a shift in thinking from net neutrality to net opportunity.
The author is director general, Cellular Operators Association of India. Views expressed by him are personal.