Friday 17 July 2015

Towards a More Transparent Internet with Net Neutrality

The Good Thing That Happened:

I am incredibly happy that all this storm has brewed up in India regarding Net Neutrality, as it signifies that now a days consumers are more aware of their rights to information access, and what is legal coercion and manipulation.

Net Neutrality is NOT something new to me. I remember during 2007-2010 a massive storm brewed up in the USA. Telecom companies in the US were planning to slow down nonmember sites and speed up sites which were in contract with them. A movement was organised, and millions of Internet users wrote to their respective Senators and finally certain Federal Regulatory bills were passed upholding Net Neutrality. Infact, one of Barack Obama's main campaign pointer was upholding Net Neutrality back then. And he did endorse it.

Then after a decade, it was turn for consumers rising up in India, in 2015. It so happened because Indian Telco's were giving access to sites for free who were in contract with them. They were also planning to charge for using messaging services like WhatsApp, as users migrated to WhatsApp chucking expensive old school SMS. Texting used to be a substantial piece of revenue for Telcos and used to go very heavy on the consumers' pocket. As the consumer shifted, Telcos decided to forcefully add additional charges for consumers to use messaging services like WhatsApp.

This created a storm naturally and Indian Government stepped into the picture and said its supports Net Neutrality. It had to, as most of the voters wanted Free and Fair Internet Access, so how can an elected Government not listen to its voters?

They then formed a Telecom Panel led by A. K. Bhargava to evaluate Net Neutrality and suggest recommendations for regulatory changes.

The Telecom Panel did uphold Net Neutrality and suggested that Net Neutrality should be incorporated in the Telecom Act and Telcos can't charge users for using Third Party Messaging Apps. The Panel also said the Telcos can't act as Gatekeepers for Internet Access and all should have equal right to passage of visitors. This is terrific, and this is needed... As Telcos can't hold consumers hostage and extort money from them in unscrupulous ways.

The Telecom Panel is one thing and TRAI is another thing altogether. TRAI or Telecom Regulatory Authority of India floats on money provided to them via licensing fees that Telcos provide. I am sure that everyone remembers the huge 3G scam that rocked India some years back which was based on allocation of bandwidth and usage rights to Telcos. So, TRAI, many of Net Neutrality Advocates look at that organisation as official spokesperson of the Telcos. But fortunately, Indian Parliamentarians supported Net Neutrality.

Coming back to the report by this Telecom Panel led by A. K. Bhargava. Some points they have suggested are bright and right and are commendable. But some points are not... Let's examine one that I feel is very objectionable.

The Bad Thing That Happened:

The Panel suggests that VOIP inside India for National calls should be regulated and can be charged by Telcos, whereas International VOIP calls should not be regulated as traditional calling costs are extremely high in the international space. Over that they stated, they are recommending this measure as Telcos had to pay huge licencing fees to Telecom Authorities (Guess Who), and courtesy this they can't compete with VOIP providers when it comes to price. So, by that logic it gives rise to unfair competition. Some might feel it's logical, but I have few things to say here.

Hanging on to Old School Technologies and Ways of Communication:

First Question: Can International calls be made PC to PC and Phone to Phone paying Data charges only?

Answer: Yes

Second Question: Are Consumers Adopting VOIP?

Answer: Yes, very much.

That means technology now exists to make calls for free. Now, not letting it prosper keeping pockets of Telcos in mind, is like pushing Old School Technology over New Age Technology. It's like saying, we will over-tax Aeroplane travel and try to curtail it, as its hurting pocket of Railways... Irrespective of progress it can bring to our lives. That is, forcing Old Tech over New Tech for the sake of a few selective pockets.

The Pannel also made some passing references that compared to regular Telephone calls the VOIP call quality is of substandard nature. Yes, it is true but why not let the consumers decide whether they want to make a free substandard call via VOIP or paid premium Telephone call. As the technology exists let the customer choose. I am sure people will opt for premium quality when needed. Why tax innovation to fill some pockets?

This kind of one-sided approach also prevents new innovations in the VOIP space. This will prevent Indian Startups exploring the VOIP option if they must pay huge license fees to make TRAI richer than it is already. So, this logic is like you must stick to old ways as it's hurting Telcos, you can't progress with time, and you can't adopt newer means of communication as certain corporates gain from it. So, I find this logic very skewed and not at all consumers friendly.

Towards a More Free and Fair Competition:

It's better instead to focus on what benefits the Internet is bringing to the world, and not exactly judge the situation by the fact that the New Tech innovations are hurting some Telcos. One must adapt to newer ways of life and communication, instead of crying like babies when a chocolate is taken away from the mouth. A mature way out of it will be to adapt to changing circumstances.

At the end of the day what is needed? Coming down hard on Monopolistic practices and promote Free and Fair competition keeping space for future innovation. For all we know newer models of communication will come out in the next decade, the idea is to embrace it and not fight it with all might.

Who Owns the Internet?

A good question arises here, who owns the Internet? Internet is inter-network of computers and servers which I and You have put up along with others... billions of users and thousands of companies. Telcos just provide the pipeline so that you and I can connect and exchange data. So, without owning the Internet, Telcos can gag you and me who are the actual owners. But stopping you and me and people like us to communicate and share content freely is like killing the Internet. No one owns the Internet, and we all own individual parts of it and it's a trade that is happening that way. So, they can't try to force things on us or gag us or ask for charges which are unfair as we are already paying for Data access. We are paying for it.

Changing Business Models as Per Need of Time:

It is high time Telcos adapted to the changing scenario, without going to war with its own consumers from whom they take money for using their services. It is also to be noted that Telcos themselves use free VOIP. The Land Line phones that come with the Broadband they do give Free Unlimited calling facilities under some plans. So, they themselves are doing it and at the same time screaming against VOIP providers.

Working Towards a Win-Win Scenario:

What is needed in India is create a win-win scenario for both the users of the Internet and the service providers. Whatever we do or decide should not be overtly skewed in one direction. Internet users and Telcos need each other, so we must work towards a win-win scenario together. If needed let's form Telecom Consumer Bodies and have meetings with Regulators and Telcos and create a win-win situation for all.


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