Home >opinion >Net neutrality and two red herrings

I tremble to differ from our political masters, media champions, and a million fellow citizens, each trumping the other in defending a cookie cutter form of net neutrality from unspeakable dangers. Yet, as our democracy provides for a minority view, here are my two bits. I only ask the reader to suspend judgement for these few moments. Technological advances make monkeys of the best of us. A measure of humility and enquiry will serve us better than synchronised chest beating.

A term which leads to false conclusions can be called a red herring. But in the case of net neutrality, both net and neutrality are whale-sized red herrings. Let us first examine net. The Internet may indeed be one of mankind’s finest creations. Yet, the issue making waves does not at all derive from the Internet. Net is incidental, a red herring. In fact, the issue derives from binary logic, expressed as 0s or 1s, first advanced by Leibnitz in 1703, and the foundation of all computer science.

When 0s and 1s are arranged in certain ways, they form software, or content. But when 0s and 1s are arranged and delivered as voice, or text, they form communications. This distinction between content and communications has been stark. Now enter smartphones and over-the-top (OTT) services which, riding on a telco can deliver both content and communications. All the fuss is only about the latter.

So what, really, is an OTT voice call riding on a telco? Is it just so many GBs of content, as the cry goes? Or is it communication, as some including this writer would argue.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing is not a sheep. We can embrace change only if we first recognise it, and then address it, and not by obfuscating and bullying. By all means, incorporate OTT: but be even-handed.

Imagine you run a business and a competitor offers the same product. Great! You must get a licence and pay tax while your competitor goes scot-free. Strange! Further, your competitor has no factory or sales organisation, he uses your factory to make his product, replaces your product, then tells you to go collect the bill amount, and at a fraction of your regular product price. This gets weird! A debate whether such terms should be stipulated can entertain only those who reckon that dreams have no end.

Now turn to neutrality, a virtuous sounding term. But the meaning will be clear only as we peel the onion. If neutrality means no abuse of market power, then neutrality is brilliant. But if neutrality means inequality and inefficiency, as will be the outcome of cookie cutter neutrality where all Internet traffic is treated the same way, then we have a problem.

Communication services come in all shapes, sizes, and latencies. They are optimised through pricing mechanisms and traffic management algorithms. Illustratively, an email is insensitive to latency, but latency will turn a voice call into gibberish. A mobile voice call transmits at 8 kb/second, but an OTT voice call may guzzle 25-80 kb/second. The reader can toss the jargon, only grasp that any reduction in mobile voice calling bill because of OTT only means that someone somewhere is picking up the tab. Arbitrage windows do not last. And while such neutrality arbitrage lasts, it will result in the slowest camel determining the speed of the Internet, which will be that of a turtle.

All worthwhile policies for the net, anywhere in the world, will necessarily draw on first principles, and will harmonise non-discrimination, with level playing field and efficient traffic management. They will do so with a light touch, be future-ready, create confidence, and promote investment and fair competition. Worldwide, telecom regulation has been at the cutting edge of policy ingenuity. Harnessing the potential of the Internet is only one more issue for global regulators to address, which they undoubtedly will.

Describing one’s anxiety to a doctor is good, prescribing one’s own medicine is ruinous. Good governance is not about following the prescription of a million citizens. Neither is it lobbing decisions right up to the Union cabinet, all very senior but eminently unsuitable. Instead, citizens should pressure the government to nurture the authority, independence, and competence of specialist institutions dealing with complex sectors. I would be terrified if India’s monetary policy was to be determined, not by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), but by opaque political processes pressured by a million hits to the RBI website. Shaping a telecom policy for India’s digital future is complex. Best left to those who are best equipped.

An expatriate CEO with long years across the world despaired how India with so many smart people can stay obstinately backward. You only have to observe our ingrained governance instincts, be it agriculture, be it town planning, or be it net neutrality, to know your answer.

Sanjeev Aga is a communications sector veteran.

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