The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has come out in favour of net neutrality in its recommendation paper released on Tuesday. The regulator has mandated that ISPs (Internet Service Providers) should not deploy any discriminatory practices such as blocking, degrading or slowing down of certain web traffic while giving preferential treatment to any specific content at the same time.
The decision was made after a series of consultations with stakeholders between 30 May 2016 and 4 January 2017. The Trai paper also suggests the formation of a regulatory body to monitor and deal with any such violation of net neutrality.
To understand how this would affect ISPs and consumers, one needs to understand what the net neutrality debate is all about. When users pay an ISP for an internet plan, they are entitled to be able to access all online content, be it videos, games, news or social media sites, at the same broadband speed they have signed up for. This has been the basic principle guiding internet and ISP since the beginning.
In 2007, US-based ISP Comcast Corp. was reportedly found to be delaying upload of files on Bitorrent. Delay in uploads affected the download speed as Bitorrent is a peer-to-peer service. FCC (Federal Communication Commission), an agency of US government, ordered Comcast in August 2008 to stop the discriminatory practice. The issue of net neutrality gathered momentum in 2015 when then US president Barack Obama pledged support for it and urged the agency to come with a strong rule on it. FCC ruled in favour of net neutrality, prohibiting any ISP from blocking, throttling, or giving special treatment in terms of speed to a content provider who has paid more than others.
The FCC’s position on net neutrality has changed under the new regime. The agency plans to repeal the net neutrality rules to regulate ISPs passed under the Obama administration through a vote on 14 December 2017.
In India, the debate on net neutrality picked speed after Facebook launched the Free Basics program in December 2015, earlier known as internet.org. Free Basics gives free access to basic internet services to users who could not afford 4G data plans and were still using slower 2G networks. Though, Facebook wasn’t charging users anything extra, the notion of favouring access to certain content went against the basic principle of net neutrality. Trai banned Free Basics and other similar services such as Airtel Zero in February 2016.
An ISP could make it harder for users to access parts of the internet to drive more traffic on its own content-sharing platform. A lot of ISPs have their own video and music streaming service. Without net neutrality regulation, they can try to throttle access to services of a rival.
In August 2014, Netflix accused Comcast of interfering with buffering speed and visual quality on the video streaming platform. The issue was resolved after Netflix agreed to pay for access to CDN networks.
In various countries with no regulation on net neutrality, ISPs are already clubbing content into packages, compelling users to pay for apps and websites which were previously free.
For example, Lisbon-based ISP MEO has got five different packs—Social (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Messaging (WhatsApp, Viber, Skype), Video (Netflix, YouTube, Twitch), Music (Pay Music, Spotify, TuneIn) and email and cloud (Gmail, Drive, Dropbox). To access these apps, subscribers have to pay an extra amount of €4.99 per month for every pack on top of the fee that they are already paying for the broadband connection to the ISP.
Another concern with lack of net neutrality is of different speed lanes and the effect it will have on startups that do not have the resource to pay for faster lanes. A study, published in September 2016, by Double Click, a Google subsidiary which develops and provides Internet ad serving services, found that slow loading websites frustrate users and this had a negative impact on the content provider. The study showed that websites which load in 5 seconds against 19 seconds witnessed 25% higher ad views, 70% longer average sessions and 35% lower bounce rates. So content providers who are on slower lanes will miss out to rivals who can afford to pay for the faster lanes. Net neutrality provides a level-playing field to content providers and startups.