Timothy Wu, the Columbia University visionary who coined the term net neutrality, may not have imagined the contentious debates that would rage over the concept a decade later, especially in India.
As India aspires to become a $1 trillion digital economy, we welcome the telecom regulator’s commitment to preserving the democracy of the internet and users’ right to freedom of speech and expression.
This age-old debate revolves around certain basic principles.
That services on the internet must be equally accessible to all, and accessible at the same speed and cost. And, lastly, that telecom operators cannot discriminate because a certain service rivals their own.
Bracketed as price and non-price based discriminatory measures, they are regarded as inviolable by proponents of “pure" net neutrality. This issue came to the fore and grabbed headlines in early 2015.
Ever since, those in support of a neutral internet have outweighed and outshouted those who are against it.
Regulatory interventions have ramifications so the maturity of the market has to be considered.
Low internet and broadband penetration, in comparison to mobile phone penetration, are often cited as factors for telcos requiring greater latitude, which will enable them to build innovative revenue streams through partnerships and business alliances with content providers.
The prevalent worry: such leeway would end up discriminating against innovative internet platforms and application service providers who do not have the financial wherewithal to enter into such alliances.
In this maelstrom, however, we must not lose sight of the fact that telcos too need sustenance. Applications which use the voice over internet protocol (VoIP), have managed to cannibalize a part of the traditional voice-based traffic, putting inordinate pressure on telcos’ bottom lines. And that why the house is divided.
But then, is it a case of cannibalization or a recalibration of the revenue model, driven by the emergence of disruptive technologies?
While voice revenues have shown a decline, data revenues have shown significant growth and acceleration as well. Given the state of our telecom infrastructure, from an overall perspective, it has to be accepted that a path that makes the telecom sector unviable is not tenable.
A digital economy can become a reality only if telcos make adequate investments to augment their existing networks to cater to the explosion of data traffic.
Innovation should not be made a collateral victim of the attention being bestowed on viability of telecom services.
The storied success of 5,200-odd tech start-ups has captured prominent mindshare. With them rest innovative ideas (read mobile/internet apps) that can change our lives. Any form of constriction will hurt this ecosystem irredeemably. Net neutrality is critical precisely because its absence means that a new start-up would be at a disadvantage vis a vis an established player.
Any strategy that aims to enhance operational viability or flexibility of telecom service providers (TSPs) at the cost of crippling the start-up and entrepreneurial ecosystem would have been short-sighted.
It must be stressed that this cannot be a zero-sum game and we have to eventually migrate to an ecosystem which supports the viability of TSPs operations just as much as it does towards nurturing innovation. The devil is in the detail. There has to be a synergy between data consumption being linked to the revenue of TSPs and unfettered growth of application service providers.
The recommendations by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) will promote every citizen’s equitable access to the internet, as well as ensure a level playing field for services providers to innovate and customize in India.
We believe that the recommendations made should be evaluated and taken up for implementation in an expeditious manner.
This will help deliver on India’s commitment to the global agenda of ensuring every citizen has a right to unfettered access to the internet.
R. Chandrashekhar is president of Nasscom.