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Net Neutrality: A Free and Open Internet

Posted by Shreyans Jain Tuesday, 28 April 2015 4 comments
Nothing unites us more effectively than a shared sense of helplessness. Unsurprisingly, netizens have witnessed a secular epiphany in the charade being run on various social media platforms to fight for net neutrality. Will the development of a regulatory framework for over-the-top (OTT) services jeopardise net neutrality and upset the level playing field in terms of regulatory compliance? Let us explore.

Presently, telecom service providers (TSPs) offering fixed and mobile telephony are being overwhelmed with traffic generated by OTT applications and services which are accessible over the Internet and piggyback on operators’ network infrastructure. Some examples of OTT services are: WhatsApp, Skype, Viber, Instagram, Facebook messenger, Google talk, et al. Except for the revenues accrued from increased data usage of users accessing OTT services via Internet, the TSPs do not realise any revenue for bandwidth and carriage of these services. The OTT applications, generating humongous online traffic, have created an increasing demand for faster Broadband speeds and, therefore, an incumbent need for huge investments in network up-gradation by the TSPs. This has induced the latter to resort to discriminatory traffic management practices like the use of data packet inspection software, application-agnostic congestion management, prioritisation, differentiated throttling and blocking, thus, interfering with the Internet users’ freedom to access content and violating the principle of net neutrality.

Net neutrality may be construed as a TSP’s obligation to treat all Internet traffic equally, irrespective of the type or origin of content or the means used for the transmission of data packets. All points in a network should be able to connect to all other points in the network with seamless delivery of traffic, without any differentiation on speed, access or price. The debate on net neutrality is comprised of issues like traffic management, investment and capacity enhancement, improved quality of service to users, unrestricted access and non-discriminatory access to the Internet.

By definition, a strict adherence to net neutrality would forbid the compelling need for traffic management and would adversely affect the network performance and quality of service. Traffic management is essential to protect the consumer experience, especially in times of extreme network congestion. The greater concern, however, is the use of traffic management, which in any sense is non-neutral, by an operator to the detriment of competitors that rely on its network. TSPs tend to make arbitrary use of network discrimination to block competing applications and services, like VoIP services, in order to eliminate competition and maximise profits. They are able to compromise appropriate functioning of these services by slowing them down and resort to preferential treatment of services and platforms. This has compounded the fear of “Internet fragmentation” viz. TSPs might slow down the “normal lane” traffic so that content providers will be forced to pay for “fast lane” access. In other words, TSPs might possibly degrade/restrict capacity in traditional Internet access to force OTT applications and content providers to use the TSPs’ “premium” service for network access. Inability to secure access to TSPs’ network or afford access-tiering charges might hinder the entry of new and emerging start-ups into the market and endanger innovation and diversity in the long run. 

In such a scenario, a uniform revenue-sharing model between the TSPs and the content and application providers should be looked at as a probable solution instead of following a tiering pricing structure to charge data hungry users. There is a need for a telecom regulatory regime to effectively target discriminatory conduct and drive competition in the market by creating a level playing field for all stakeholders.

The network provided by TSPs is used as a platform by the OTT players for the growth and development of their businesses. Insofar the current business models are concerned, it is difficult to create a conducive and balanced environment to induce TSPs to invest in network infrastructure owing to the huge costs incurred by them in acquiring spectrum, category license to operate etc. The Government is already committed to bringing its dream of “Digital India” to fruition byconnecting all 2,50,000 Gram Panchayats spread over 6,590 Blocks and 637 Districts with optical fibre cable to enhance Broadband penetration as part of the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project. Any attempt to further the interests of one stakeholder over the other will not be a move in the right direction. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India issued a consultation paper on “Regulatory Framework for Over-the top (OTT) Services” on March 27, 2015 which triggered the debate for upholding net neutrality in India. For further deliberations, the comments and counter comments of all stakeholders are awaited till April 24, 2015 and May 08, 2015 respectively. It would, therefore, not be prudent to ascribe the regulator to a particular line of thought or arouse any unfounded suspicion among Internet users by circulating parody videos and posts with inciting hashtags on social media platforms.

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