India’s net neutrality debate is unique and complex

Connectivity to millions in India is main issue

pratap

Pratap Vikram Singh | December 14, 2015 | New Delhi



The net neutrality debate has perplexed layman and policy experts alike. For a developing country like India, where a majority of the population doesn’t have access to internet, whether government should stick to the core principles or should it allow flexibility in network management practices to operators is still not clear yet. Whether India should go for an overarching, prophylactic regulation (ex ante), prohibiting any kind of zero rating, or should it adopt evidence-based, contextual regulation (ex post facto)? Whether zero rating should be allowed and if allowed then on what conditions? This is what experts from telecom industry and civil society deliberated in a round table on network neutrality jointly organised by Observer Research Foundation and Centre for Internet and Society on Saturday.

Neutrality refers to open and non-discriminatory nature of internet; information (or say data packets) has always flown freely on the network. Facebook, Google and many other internet businesses have emerged as a result of free and non discriminatory nature of internet.

Warning against taking a 'doctrinaire' approach to net neutrality, a telecom industry expert  said that regulators must have flexibility to respond to market demand in the telecom industry. Adding that Indian market is unique with more than seven-ten telecom operators providing internet facility, the expert said that net neutrality will play differently in developing countries.

He said if implemented properly, the zero-rating approach or sponsored content followed by TSPs, “can be one of the ways to scale up internet access” to the unconnected regions.

Another industry expert said that the regulations on network neutrality has to be contextualized in terms of geography. He criticized the ‘savetheinternet’ movement, which galvanised support of one million internet users in favour of strict neutrality, for preventing one billion people from accessing ‘free’ internet. He said that telecom operators’ revenue from zero rating plans is less than one percent.

He was also against bringing net neutrality under the purview of competition commission of India. He said that there are already several laws related to consumer protection, information technology and monopoly to deal with situations arising out of neutrality issue.

An internet freedom activist said that zero rating can be allowed under stringent conditions of transparency, non-exclusivity and reasonability. He said that one way of setting the neutrality debate would be to allow zero rating with an amount of equal rating. This means that telecom players can offer toll free access to certain websites but they would also have to provide free 100 Mb or 200 Mb data connectivity within which a user can access any website or app for free.

“Countries like the US can afford to debate on net neutrality as almost 90 percent of their population are connected to internet. Here (in India) we should first worry about providing internet access to our people,” an ORF researcher said, speaking on the sidelines of the roundtable discussion.

The neutrality debate is getting momentum again with TRAI’s consultation paper being released on December 9. In its second paper, TRAI suggested, “that TSPs could provide initial data consumption for free, without limiting it to any particular content. Current examples of this approach include allowing free browsing or discounted tariffs for specified time windows, or giving away a certain amount of data for free.”

The regulator also called for regulation that “must seek a balance between ensuring wider access to the internet,” and in the manner that does not allow discrimination in charging tariffs from the users consuming varied content. The regulator has asked all stakeholders in telecom industry to come up with alternative methods in order to provide free access of internet to the consumers, and keep competition and innovation in the market intact.

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