The Case Against Net Neutrality

L Subramanyan

 

At the beginning, let me make one point clear; I am against the throttling of speeds by broadband operators. Agreed? Ok, then, let’s move on.

The recent rhetoric on Net Neutrality bothers me in one aspect. We have lived without the government’s intervention on the Internet for the last 20 years. So why now? Why should the government worry about who gets to see what and consume what content on the Internet? Isn’t it enough that by these very interventionist measures, the government has already hurt, if not fatally injured, the entire telecom business? Do we need to kill broadband access too?

Also read: Net Neutrality in India and why it matters

I am not getting into the debate on Net Neutrality here. Supporters of Net Neutrality, which include the ‘creators’ of the commercial Internet Vinton Cerf and Tim Berners Lee, have argued, very successfully, for an open Internet. So has US President Barack Obama. So has, I hear, our own minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Many of the pro-Net Neutrality arguments are actually anti-content throttling arguments. And I agree with those arguments.

However, what I do find difficult to agree with is the supposition that ‘someone’ ought to regulate what a broadband company ought to charge.

Zero Rating: Perception vs Reality

I also find it difficult, consequently, to accept Sachin Bansal’s (and other such e-commerce players) withdrawal from Airtel’s Zero rating.

Let us look at a scenario. I, as a broadband network, have invested in significant sums to build the network. You, as an ecom player, want to leverage this by providing free access to people who you want as eventual consumers.

Also read: Will telcos thrive on ambiguity?

So you divert a part (a significant part, possibly) of your marketing spend. You pay me, the network, and pick up the tab for data charges on behalf of the consumers who come to your portal. I, because you are my customer, provide you faster access.

So what is the fuss?

It would be a crime if I throttled the speed for other consumers who may want to go to some other ecom portal. It could also be a crime if I stopped serving other ecom portals. It could further be a crime if I make you go away from my network if you didn’t go to my ecom portal. I am doing none of these. I am providing preferential access to my customers. By no stretch of imagination is it curbing anybody’s ‘freedom of speech’. On no account are we throttling innovation (I still don’t understand where this argument even came in).

The ‘pro’ guys argue that the big guys will muscle out the small guys. But, hey, aren’t they already doing it? The smaller ecom companies will find it difficult to compete. However, the small ecom companies will become big ecom companies via investments, and by innovating a smarter way to do things.

Broadband access is not the reason why ecom companies succeed or fail. It is execution of business models.

Also read: Net Neutrality: What industry leaders are saying

As an entrepreneur, it is my job to reach out to the largest number of customers and prospects in the most profitable way. If a network and an entrepreneur have a business agreement that does not violate the law, then why did Flipkart do a volte-face and withdraw from Airtel Zero?

The truth is in perception. It is my educated guess that Flipkart did not want to be ‘seen’ as a company that ‘goes against the fundamental freedom of speech and choice’ and ditto for Amazon, Cleartrip and a host of other companies which wanted to battle perception rather than reality.

So Who Pays?

The other problem with the Net Neutrality principle is that if everybody has equal access and common speeds, then someone is going to have to pay for it. Which essentially means that either the government will stipulate the prices (a sort of lowest common denominator) with little or no relevance to the investments made, or everybody will suffer, as we are in the mobile telephony business, where you have bits of hurried conversation between call drops!

On the other hand, if TRAI or somebody with some legal backing could simply stipulate the basic minimum standards for broadband speeds, below which the operator could be penalized, then higher speeds could attract premium pricing, which could then actually subsidize ‘free internet for all’.

My biggest fear is that thanks to the politicization of this Net Neutrality debate, there is going to be a significant drop in the creation of the broadband infrastructure, which is abysmal as it is. This will lead to a greater inequality and deepen the digital divide.

The Indian situation calls for some very drastic solutions. We have to significantly increase the broadband footprint across the country. This will call for massive investments by the existing (as well as new players). Sitting on a pedestal and asking for ‘free internet for all’ is not going to happen till then.

Currently, India has amongst the lowest median download speeds in the world, according to the Global Internet Report 2014–at less than 5 Mbps, compared with a median speed of over 20 Mbps in Americas, Europe, China and Australia, and over 30 Mbps in parts of Europe and Korea.

The Access Crisis

That should be our biggest worry. If there is anything that can throttle content consumption, it is the lack of infrastructure and not zero-rated services.

Increased and faster access can empower those on the wrong side of digital divide much more dramatically. So comparing our ‘freedom to choose’ to that of the US or Europe has little meaning. In reality, the Indian consumer even today has little freedom to choose, no recourse to complain about lower-than-promised bandwidth, no recourse to fight deficient or non-existent service and so on and so forth.

Finally, in India, seldom have we had a reasonable debate on critical issues. Matters are normally settled by burning books (or buses), shrill rhetoric (mostly in the English TV media, often a slanging match with a dangerous ‘nation wants to know’ kind of a question or hysterical sound bytes from a less-than-knowledgeable politician).

While the Net Neutrality debate showed all signs of degenerating into one (or all) of the above, one hopes that a larger picture is seen by the powers-that-be.

This debate is not, simply not, about freedom. In the larger, and Indian scheme of things, it has to be about access to the net.