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Monday, April 6, 2015

Net Neutrality

Came to know through this link that there is a proposal (or actual offering) to provide access to some sites for free. Airtel will charge those sites for data usage instead of the users. So Internet users with this plan get to surf these sites for free. Of course, users have an option to pay and then surf all the sites in the world. Isn't this a great plan. Most Internet users would visit only a handful of sites, and if all those sites are included in the plan, then it essentially provides free access to most customers. That appears to be a great thing to happen.

But let us fast forward this a bit. If a service provider like Airtel is able to have a deal with 100 top apps that they will pay for the bandwidth instead of the user, and if any popular app resists such a deal, the service provider can throw in that package anyway on its own cost since it is making enough profits from other 100. a vast majority of the users will seek this package and now this vast majority has no way to access any other site.

These customers may not mind that situation, but is this a healthy situation for the country, for the society, for further innovation and so on. It is obvious that this will hurt innovation. Any new company that wants to have its app distributed and want people to access its service will have to have the same deal with all service providers in the world who have such packages. The service providers may refuse to have such deals, which means that these innovative apps are not accessible to a vast majority of customers. And even if the service provider agrees to have a deal, the cost of innovation has just gone up substantially. This simply can not be a healthy situation for the society at large.

Will this even help those customers who are happy with that limited free access. To some yes, but not to everyone. If it is an e-commerce site, would it give away money to the ISP as charity. Of course, now. It is going to take that cost into account when it decides its prices. So the customers will end up paying anyway.

Isn't this similar to reverse charge calls or toll free calls where the receiver has agreed to pay for the call. If we can have that system in telephony, why not in Internet. Unfortunately, the system is not similar. If a telephone company offers you a service which allows you only free calls to a few thousand numbers that the company decided, would it be useful. In the Internet world also, if we had a system which allowed the site to subsidize my access to them without compromising or reducing my access to anyone else, it would be perhaps alright. But then this decision would be of that site, and not of the Internet service provider. (I feel uncomfortable with this, but have not been able to come up with a good articulation of that discomfort.)

And that is really the whole idea behind net neutrality. The network provider should be an honest broker between the users and the sites. It should charge for its services in a uniform way, treating all bits as equal. It can vary charges on the basis of technology, number of bits, speed of bits, time of day, day of week and so on, but not on the basis of source or destination of the bits, since that would lead to stifling of innovation in the Internet.

Of course, this is not the first time an Internet service provider has tried to differentiate between sites. We already have the controversial promoted by facebook. We had another attempt earlier of charging extra for VoIP services. And with TRAI releasing the discussion paper on Over-The-Top (OTT) services, the debate has started in India regarding the extent to which net neutrality should be maintained here. And I do hope that TRAI decides in favour of a strict version of net neutrality.

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