A joint proposal released recently by Google and Verizon has taken the simmering debate on Net neutrality, and set it on boil.
Essentially Net neutrality means that Internet service providers (ISPs) treat all content providers equally. So the ISPs don’t discriminate between, say, YouTube video traffic and life-saving telemedicine services being provided by a non-governmental organization.
The Google-Verizon proposal, innocuous at first reading, has some troublesome interpretations. The one that has fuelled most comment has been the bifurcation of wired and wireless connections. The proposal imposes a form of neutrality on wired Internet, but lets wireless providers do what they want.
Should the Indian government interfere to guarantee Net neutrality? Or should we trust ISPs, content houses and the free markets to determine what is best? After all, there are a plethora of established ISPs in India. Customers, both individual and institutional, have choice.
But anyone who has ever received spam text messages, or has been waiting for mobile number portability, knows that the Indian telecom sector is a rambunctious animal on a luxurious leash. There have been cases when service providers have extended additional bandwidth to customers to access certain content. Earlier this year, Airtel offered a 2Mbps speed upgrade to access YouTube broadcast of Indian Premier League matches.
Yet there is no better analogy for what government intervention could bring about than the bus rapid transit system in Delhi. On the face of it, BRTS is a good idea. Private vehicles use one channel while certain vehicles such as buses use another restricted channel. The idea was to help both users, by improving public transport, and reduce private transport congestion.
But Delhi residents know all that is required for illegal access into the BRTS lane is a thick skin, a siren or some distant association with even a retired member of Parliament. All that BRTS achieved was to infuriate the people in the open channels and let a privileged few bypass the law. Now everyone wishes the project had never been implemented.
So should the Indian government step in to regulate channels and access on the Internet? Should it allow certain services to be prioritized at the expense of others? May be not.
The free-market melee of open roads and open bandwidth seems to work best for now.
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