Imagine buying milk at the supermarket to make yogurt or a shake. Would it be fair to pay differently for the same milk based on whether the milk is being made into a shake or yogurt? It is practically irrelevant to the seller of the commodity what the buyer does with the commodity after buying it. The seller functions as a conduit or ‘dumb pipe’. His services are only providing the commodity and not monitoring what the seller intends to do with it and hence, charge him appropriately. Of course, big companies, as sellers, tend to disagree with this. Enter TSPs bringing their side of the story…
Net neutrality (NN), coined by Prof. Tim Wu of Columbia University, is a principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) and governments should treat all internet data equally sans any basis of discrimination. Just as the most important parts of a ‘dumb pipe’ are its ends where information enters and exits, so is it believed that the primary service provider (of any data) and the end user (of the data) are the important parts of a network (of an ISP).
The debate over NN has been going on for quite some time now. Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) through their attractive internet plans have dug new pits to fall into for themselves. Practically free calls & enviable sound quality and easy financial transaction services make Over-The-Top (OTT) Communication Service Providers (CSPs) such as Skype and Application Service Providers (ASPs) such as Amazon respectively simply walk away with the profits that the TSPs have expected. TSPs invest lots into R&D to maintain and upgrade their network services. But OTT apps, requiring almost zero maintenance charges, free ride on the TSPs’ technology and stand to make huge profits from third-party ads or pay-to-use content.
Contending with traditional voice calls and SMS, OTT CSPs, such as Whatsapp, are now increasingly grabbing the profits away from TSPs. Absence of strict licensing, regulations and monitoring of OTTs; security issues; as well as the loss of revenue to the Government are some of the additional points TSPs make against OTTs. Hence, the TSPs demand, the Govt. needs to put up some regulation framework for the CSPs and ASPs. But TSPs already have been using several methods to regulate internet traffic for personal profit motives or other reasons such as legal obligations, etc. TSPs use blocking and ‘throttling’ strategies which are fundamentally against NN.
The only way to solve this problem is by either (1) charging the CSPs and ASPs for using the infrastructure of the TSPs or (2) charging the end user (of CSPs and ASPs). The first option is likely to prevent birth and growth of new start-ups. This is because of the limited nature of a country’s bandwidth for which existing industrial giants compete with small new companies. This option is akin to asking the milkman, who supplied the milk to the supermarket in the first paragraph, to pay the supermarket. The second option is clearly opposed to NN and is also likely to make usage difficult for internet users. It is similar to paying a second time for the same commodity and also against the right to freedom of privacy to use a commodity as a user feels.
Pure NN cannot lead to any economic progress and is also likely to change the existing policy structure regarding numerous industries and technologies. It is also likely to raise several moral issues. The availability of open source data on 3D printed firearms is one such issue. Increased revenue focussed approach on OTTs may promote a short-term settlement for the technology owners but it hampers scientific and hence, economic progress in the long run. Hence, a balanced partnership approach is needed where the TSPs and OTT owners need to discuss a supportive framework. A solution is possible only when both these parties are supplemented with what the end users – WE- think. So please do email TRAI the answers to their questions.
May the Force. Ahem. May the Neutrality Be With The Net!