Telephone Service Providers (TSPs) in India continue to violate Net neutrality in the absence of a law mandating it. The latest such instance is the launch of a platform by Airtel where the service provider signs up app developers for a fee and selectively allows free access to users.
Ironically though, this announcement came days after Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper, inviting views from various stakeholders, including Telcos and Internet Service providers, on issues related to Net neutrality
While the consultation paper took into account various aspects surrounding the issue, it appeared as though the telecom regulator was seeking to appease the TSPs by projecting their viewpoint.
The paper highlighted how TSPs had made substantial investments in infrastructure and paid license fees and other charges, while Over the Top (OTT) players like Skype, WhatsApp and others, who did not come under the purview of the telecom regulatory regime, had caused significant losses to the TSPs and also the government.
It also noted that while the end users were paying data charges, those were not adequate to offset the losses in revenue from texting, telephony and other value added services offered by the TSPs.
The paper however overlooked the fact that licensed TSPs have immensely benefited over the years by having a near monopoly or limited competition in the circles they operate. It also did not take into consideration the inability of these players to anticipate disruption and provide cheaper and more secure VoIP services to their customers when they had the opportunity.
There was also no mention whatsoever, of the recent instances when TSPs flouted the principle of Net neutrality. Instead, TRAI is seeking to explore the feasibility of a framework to regulate OTT Players.
I think a licensing regime or a regulatory mechanism for OTT players, who are essentially app developers, is a bad idea. The wise men in TRAI should instead recognize that Internet is a utility, just like electricity or water, and the people who run the pipes can only charge the consumer for delivering the utility. They can’t tell them how to consume it. A TSP selectively allowing app access on the Internet is akin to an electricity distribution company telling the consumer what to use it for.
The Telecom regulator would do well to take a cue from the European Union whose regulations ensure that Internet users get a basic quality of service, or from the United States Federal Communications Commission which has reclassified broadband Internet as a Telecommunication service, thereby preserving Net neutrality.
Sudhir Narasimhan is Consulting Editor at IDG Media. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org